By Joe Phelps
Sunrise Children’s Services, the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s agency for at-risk children, receives $26 million of its $27 million budget — over 96 percent — from government funding, according to an Oct. 31 Courier-Journal report about its ongoing legal battles.
We can disagree over the legal and theological questions this story poses. But first, let’s pause to note the enormous percentage of government funding required to underwrite this indispensable program of care for vulnerable children.
This is who we are as a nation. We work together, making concessions and adaptations as needed, to address the non-negotiable needs of our most vulnerable fellow citizens. The name for this is “government,” a fine idea and word that is disparaged by its constant, if inconsistent, critics.
Is it not the business of government to render basic care for those unable to care for themselves? And if not the government, then what group should shoulder this responsibility?
That the KBC, with its strong network of 2,400 churches, cannot or does not fully and independently underwrite the expense for at-risk children is a small but significant response to the short-sighted political movement bent on shrinking government by returning virtually all social service needs to the private sector without government support.
This may sound good to people averse to paying taxes. The problem is that it doesn’t work. Without us — which is what the government is — underwriting these lifeline social service programs, they would close tomorrow.
Just as the KBC cannot fund the current cost of their children’s home without government support, all of the nation’s charitable groups combined would be utterly incapable on their own of paying the untold cost for food, housing, health care, mental health needs and more for the unemployed, elderly, sick, disabled and indigent.
Do the math. Religious and nonprofit groups may be sacrificial and generous. But even if 100 percent of their contributions went to direct relief for the most desperate, it would not be ample to meet these real needs for a month, much less on a long-term basis.
If not for the support of all of us through our taxes, who would fully underwrite a critical program such as care for at-risk kids?
Do opponents of “big government” (a criticism only applied to those parts of the government they don’t condone) really believe that if taxes were returned to the taxpayers they would be funneled miraculously to private agencies to address these needs? Statistics on charitable giving tell a different tale.
Unless we as a nation are prepared to see at-risk children ignored, the aged starving at our doorsteps or people who are seriously mentally ill roaming our streets, or anarchy from the ignored masses (think Hunger Games), then we need to acknowledge and even celebrate that the best and perhaps only way to systematically, compassionately and effectively meet these needs is through our taxes that fund the needed governmental programs, as clunky and inefficient as they are at times.
I’m not ignoring the crucial role of volunteer service and sacrificial sharing of resources, such as is done in places of worship, are vital. And I’m proud of the faith community’s prophetic call for justice, such as gave birth to the children’s home after the Civil War. The world’s religions have led the way in advocating for the least and last among us. Give us credit for this along with the criticisms for our failures.
But if the KBC is unable to raise an additional $26 million each year to sustain the work of this one small piece of the social safety net for the vulnerable, how can reasonable and compassionate people propose shrinking government — our collective best efforts to address real needs through taxing all of us and distributing a small percentage of it to those in need?
I’m all for requiring those able to work to do so, as long as we take into account the complexities of employing single parents, the disabled and those with no starting frame of reference for full-time employment.
I’m also all for eliminating waste and graft found in welfare programs, as long as we demand the same scrutiny in weeding out waste and graft in farm subsidies, financial industry bailouts, tax evasion, and corporation loopholes. And I’m for addressing long-term debt and balancing budgets.
But my moral framework as a person of faith insists that we retain a priority to care for the neediest among us, those who have no voice in the political arena or in the market, and yet who are among us and depend on us, like the children cared for by Sunrise.
By every spiritual teaching I know, it is how we care for the voiceless and powerless among us that is the measure of a nation’s moral success and long-term joy. This is very much our business.