Privatizing Workfare, Through the Voluntary Sector

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Have you ever wondered where all those freeware programs have come from? Thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of lines of code are in each of them. Some of them are "shareware," for which a payment is expected after a trial period, but others are free for the downloading. It’s almost a certainty that you have one or more of them performing a useful task in your computer.

The programmers that come up with such gizmos tend to have this attribute in common: they’re entrepreneurial, but not very businesslike. They tend to choke when it comes time to demanding a price for their work. Many of them are jobholders at heart, who have tried to go into trade while not holding down a programming job. Others do so for popularity reasons, or out of desire to kick back something after benefiting from prior freeware, or for the love of programming as an end in itself, or for a combination of the above three.

The programming culture is a hard-working culture, so my focusing upon them could be seen as me indulging in a bit of mother henning; they are the farthest group of people from the stereotype of the "unemployed bum" that comes to mind. And yet, some of them are on the welfare system.

Here is a real opportunity for an entrepreneurial sort in the charity circuit. Simply put, it’s the opportunity to privatize workfare.

"Workfare," as many of you know, is an attempt by government to create synthetic part-time jobs for welfare recipients who can work. Many of the proponents of such systems would admit that these synthetic jobs are not really productive, in and of themselves; make-work tends to be the order of the day. The hope behind these programs is to get, or keep, welfare recipients in a jobholder’s routine, so as to make it easier for them to get, and keep, a regular job. I’m sure that you’ve already guessed that such programs aren’t exactly shining successes in "ending welfare as we know it." The inherent obstacles that bureaucracy faces in "playing market" all but guarantee it. Look at the bind that workfare administrators face: if there are no useful government jobs to be found for the welfare recipients, as is likely because the government hasn’t exactly been chary as an employer, then it has to be make-work. Putting workfare participants on make-workfare encourages the notion among welfare recipients that all jobs are make-work, or are dead-end make-work. Supervision tends to be either minimal, as task-centered supervision requires a task, or else arbitrary — "makeorders" for makeworkers. The absurdity inherent in the latter approach quickly becomes evident, so supervision of the workfare chores soon becomes minimal.

The bureaucrat has no choice. There is no "El Trabajo" filled with useful jobs that mimic the real thing. In addition, the bureaucrat, being a real employee of a real government, has additional constraints that he or she must follow. No competing with union labor; no tasks that would make the workfare program look like a resuscitation of corvée; etc. ad populum. In a world full of rules, there is always room for one more. Ludwig von Mises was astute enough to foresee the tangles of the bureaucratic system ‘way back in 1944; Bureaucracy still speaks to today’s world — if anything, more loudly than it did during the time when it first rolled off the presses. No wonder why the typical workfare program veers towards training programs.

It should be kept in mind, though, that workfare is a step away from welfare destitution and towards productivity. It may inculcate the habit of make-work, but it also inculcates the habit of showing up somewhere on time. For many hard-core welfare recipients, acquiring this habit is a step up.

Government, though, has gone as far as it can go with respect to human reclamation. The performance pathologies are inherent in the system. There is, however, another step up…but one that can only be undertaken within the voluntary sector, which has the freedom of action that a government bureau simply cannot have.

Imagine a charitable endeavor, one wholly financed by tax-deductible donations, whose reason for being is to hire people to "work for free," in other charitable endeavors. This kind of organization would be to the voluntary sector what the middleman is to the free market: the matching of unemployed workers, who need a job of some sort, with people who need the product or service provided by the charity.

We’re already seeing something of the sort in real charities, in fundraising, which has provoked outcries from time to time. What I’m suggesting is extending this model to people who are actually doing the good works.

Of course, the pay offered by such institutes would be below the going rate in the free marketplace. A relative disincentive is, of course, needed to get the rescuees on the employment side back into the jobs market. It would, though, be paid work, work that is much closer to the regular jobs market than workfare can be.

When a teenager, I participated in a micro-scale endeavor of this sort, called "S.A.I.N.T.S.," where teenagers needing extra money did odd jobs for seniors needing help with them. So, this idea is far from new. It’s only a revival of the old benevolent society, with a less morals-driven format. It’s also been prefigured by volunteers donating their valuable time. Just imagine what would result from this kind of organization permeating general society:

  • More freeware;
  • Otherwise-unemployed tutors offering tutor services to kids whose parents can’t afford the upscale service;
  • Skilled workers fixing up ruined people’s homes instead of their own;
  • Tax and financial-planning help, beyond credit counseling, for those unable to afford the real thing;
  • Etc.

All of it done under a tax-exempt umbrella. To make the charitable status of such organizations plain, all that’s needed would be to give away the product or service to the needy. As a side benefit, such an organization would be a quick and easy way for a company with a job offer to find someone who is unemployed but is also still connected to the world of service, rather than to the world of make-work.

The only downside to this endeavor is that it would encourage the government to revive Great-Society-era schemes. Government is the place where dreamers tend to go; such people tend to be resistant to failure analysis. This is why so many of them, sad to say, wind up embittered. In addition, government officialdom is still considered prestigious in the not-for-profit sector, so there will be some pressure on any charity entrepreneur to "trade up" by going into government.

In the 1980s, there was a young fellow by the name of Gerard Kennedy, whose claim to fame came through an achievement that many entrepreneurs will resonate to. He’s the person who "established" (as of 1986) the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto, Canada, an idea which has now spread all through the country. The food-bank idea, I am sure, seemed little more than a marginal, mostly harebrained scheme at the time Mr. Kennedy first got in on it, in Edmonton in 1983. "Why would a food bank be even necessary? Isn’t that what welfare is for? Why would anyone use it?"

Translated into for-profit terms, this is the kind of barrier than any visionary entrepreneur faces. "Why would X be even necessary? Doesn’t Y do the job?" Like any profit-driven entrepreneur, Mr. Kennedy saw a slice of the real world that was blocked out by the then-current paradigm. Instead of accepting that paradigm, or washing his hands of it and giving up (which would have involved a certain kind of embitterment for him,) he instead persisted, and wound up changing the Canadian voluntary sector forever.

It would be inaccurate to assume that Mr. Kennedy could have been a very rich man had he tried, or had he had an opportunity to do so. There are otherwise-entrepreneurial people who are genuinely uncomfortable with going into trade. These people do move to a different value-drum. Expecting them to be businesspeople assumes away their real value choices.

It is accurate, though, to assume that Mr. Kennedy would have achieved success, consonant with his own values, in a free-market society. He wouldn’t have made much money, ’tis true, but he would have earned a lot of respect, as he has in the world of today.

Unfortunately, though, the world of today is one where that risk of government inviting itself in is very real. Gerard Kennedy makes a good case study for this reason, too: at present, he’s a prominent member of the fundamentally statist Liberal Party of Canada. (He was close to becoming its leader recently.) As the old saying goes, "remember the risk."

Daniel M. Ryan [send him mail] is a Canadian whose reach has long exceeded his grasp. He’s currently wearing out his thumb with pen and paper.

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