The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

March 4, 2013

James Whitford, guest columnist: Effective compassion not government's job

By James Whitford
Special to The Globe

JOPLIN, Mo. — I was contacted recently by the Missouri Association for Social Welfare with a request to participate in the annual point-in-time homeless count. This is a particular day when all agencies serving the homeless are encouraged to do an on-site head count of the homeless and turn in the numbers to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

As a champion of a collaborative effort in Joplin over the past several years, I am always interested in gathering good data for all of us to use. However, when that data becomes a tool for bringing government funding into our city, I can’t help but cringe.

As a nation, we’re almost $17 trillion in the hole. We all should cringe. I understand that Missouri has an AAA credit rating with a balanced budget, but don’t forget that one-third of the revenue in our state comes directly from Washington. Yes, Missouri is on federal welfare. So, any way you skin it, we are in a situation that calls for every one of us to do our part to find alternatives to the use of government dollars in caring for the sick, hungry, elderly and poor.

Years ago, when I started managing a large pizza restaurant, it was typical for the cooks to eat the mistakes they made. Food cost was high and, figuratively speaking, everyone was fat. It wasn’t until I instituted the policy “no eating mistakes” that the number of mistakes dropped significantly.

Here’s my point: Problems rarely get solved when the presence of the problem guarantees our next meal. Yet, this type of disincentive is subtly at work when we report homeless numbers to a government that returns aid in response. And to compound the problem, the aid doesn’t resolve the issues. Food, clothing and a house don’t solve the problems of hunger, poverty or homelessness any more than triple antibiotic ointment heals a wounded heart.

What is effective? Read Marvin Olasky’s “The Tragedy of American Compassion.” He delineates the marks of effective compassion: building or restoring family relationships; using discernment in the process of accountability; entering into economic exchange with the poor; providing freedom; and exercising faith.

Government’s primary responsibility is maintaining order in society so freedom can flourish, not demonstrating effective compassion. That job belongs to you and me, personally. And part of our responsibility in caring for our fellow man is to view him as God intends. Consider that my rescue mission alone has documented in the past six months more than 2,000 instances of the homeless and poor earning what they need.

Did we view “Kathy” as “poor” while she partnered in our “Worth-Shop” to earn Christmas gifts for her kids? Did we consider “Joe” as “homeless” while he was framing our new garage so he could earn tires for his car?

Maybe we’d be better off and move toward real solutions if instead of counting “homeless” and “poor,” we counted “inventive, diligent partners with ingenuity, capacity and potential.” That would be a point-in-time count I’d like to see.

James Whitford is executive director of Watered Gardens Gospel Rescue Mission and Joplin’s True Charity Initiative,