In a largely unremarked speech before the National Alliance of Business, President Reagan recently laid out his view that government is not only a poor substitute for private charity, but often gets in the way of the ability of people to help themselves and each other.
It was not a budget speech, calculated to justify the administration's slashing of social programs. It was a philosophical statement, designed to restore charity's good name.
The president's immediate concern was to support the efforts of private businesses in several U.S. cities in increasing job and job-training opportunities for idle youths. But his remarks covered the gamut of social- service programs: from day-care and adoption services to crime prevention.
"In all my years as governor, and now as president," he said Oct. 5, "I have never found an agency, a program, a piece of legislation . . . or a budget . . . that was adequate to meet the total needs of human beings. Something is missing from such an equation. I believe that something is private initiative and community involvement.
"Economic problems or not, isn't it time to take a fresh look at the way we provide social services? Not just because they cost so much and waste so much, but because too many of them just don't work. Even if the federal government had all the money it wished to spend on social programs, would we still want to spend it the way we have in the past?"
As examples of the old, ineffectual ways of delivering services, he mentioned welfare that so often traps its recipients in their dependency; tax-supported relief efforts that, through their impersonality, manage to offend both donor and recipient, and government regulations that, in the name of protecting against abuse, make it impossible for local citizens to furnish the help they are both willing and able to provide.
He made clear his belief that government must continue to play a role in helping the helpless. "Federal loan guarantees will not be restored by wealthy people dancing till dawn at charity balls," he said. "Nor will we replace the Department of Health and Human Services with the Junior League."
But he believes we have lost an essential element of the American spirit--the spirit epitomized by the community barn-raising efforts of earlier times--through our near-total reliance on government-sponsored aid.
"There is a legitimate role for government," he said, "but we must not forget that before the idea got around that government was the principal vehicle of social change, it was understood that the real source of our progress as a people was the private sector. The private sector still offers creative, less expensive and more efficient alternatives for solving our social problems."
He ticked off a number of private programs that have outperformed their government-sponsored rivals: the House of Umoja in Philadelphia, which has managed to reduce teen-gang killings from 40 a year in the 1970s to only one a year; the Detroit effort, known as Homes for Black Children, that in its first year placed more children in permanent homes than all 13 of the city's traditional placement agencies combined; the Ronald McDonald Houses that provide quarters so parents can be near their hospitalized children; the New York City Partnership, an association of 100 business and civic leaders that has found jobs for some 14,000 disadvantaged youths; the Honeywell project that, by providing job-training for inmates, has reduced their recidivism rate from an estimated 70 percent to less than 3 percent.
"Voluntarism," Reagan said, "is an essential part of our plan to give the government back to the people. I believe the people are anxious for this responsibility. I believe they want to be enlisted in this cause."
Any reporter who has ever written of a destitute family, or a shoeless child, or a lonely, malnourished old woman, can verify that the urge to be helpful is there. But, particularly in the cities, people find it more and more difficult to be helpful in ways that are personally satisfying. If a neighbor's house burns down, their response is immediate and generous. But if the jobless teen-ager or the lonely woman or the student in need of tutorial help lives across town, they may never hear of the need. Even indirect involvement--giving money to community groups that are close to the problems--is far more satisfying than assistance paid for through taxes.
The problem is to provide a connection between those in need and those prepared to help. Reagan proposes to do it by developing "pump-priming and seed-money programs" and by offering technical assistance where needed.
And by getting government out of the way--the "deregulation" of community service, he calls it.
"Mothers and grandmothers have been taking care of children for thousands of years without special college training," he said. "Why is it certain states prohibit anyone without a college degree in early childhood education from operating a day-care facility?"