Providing In The Lord’s Way, Part 2

Part 1 is here.
In this part, I want to explore some of the reasons we like the LDS welfare system and examine our assumptions, first to see if they are accurate and, second, to see if they could be applied more generally.

One of the really great things about the church method of providing for the poor is the way LDS people entrust the bishop with the responsibility for deciding who gets what and how much. It is considered very bad form among us to second guess the bishop’s decisions, and it is hardly ever done. This has the wonderful effect of doing away with the tendency to judge the needy. Are they wasteful or lazy? It’s no skin off my nose either way, because I trust the bishop and his decision is good enough for me. Compare this with the discourse about the poor outside the church. We do not hesitate to criticize welfare queens, deadbeat dads who are unemployed, anchor babies, and so on.

Let’s now consider the likelihood that LDS poor in the U.S. are about the same as non-LDS poor. In fiscal year 2010, about 40 million Americans received some kind of food assistance from the government in the form of food stamps, WIC, or a similar program. 40 million in a country of about 310 million works out to about 12% percent of the population. Does that seem like an outrageously high number? In the average ward with 150 active members, 12% works out to 18 members. I can almost guarantee that, in most wards, more than 18 people are granted some form of assistance over the course of a year. It only takes 2 or 3 Mormon-sized families to reach that number, and I am aware of wards where the bishop handles 15-20 welfare cases in a single month. I think we must conclude that the poor outside the church are no less deserving than the poor who sit with us on the pews each Sunday, and it would behoove us to discontinue thinking and speaking of them in demeaning terms.

A third point in the LDS system is the way we think about the cost of providing. We assume, incorrectly I believe, that our system of warehouses and distribution centers and volunteer labor allows us to deliver assistance at a cost substantially below market. But think about it. Assume I am a Mormon living in Atlanta, GA who has an order form to the bishop’s storehouse. This week, it would include things like a turkey, fruit, tuna fish, vegetables, peanut butter, jello, cheese, and other ordinary grocery items. The turkey would come from Manti, the pineapple from the church farm in Hawaii, the cheese from Logan, the apples from Santaquin, the spuds from Idaho, the tuna from California, the peanut butter from Houston, and the Jello from Kansas City, by way of Salt Lake City. The transportation costs alone are significant, and so is the way our canneries are only in use one or two nights a week. Any rookie CPA can tell you that there is a cost associated with idle capacity. Finally, anybody who has ever relied on volunteer labor for something important knows that relying on volunteers is often the most expensive way to get things done. Then, even if the church managed to get a $100 basket of goods to the storehouse in Atlanta for only $85, it will still take me at least $15 in gas to drive roundtrip across town, while passing up 200 grocery stores on the way. The church chooses (for very good reasons, I think) not to subject its welfare operations to market discipline, so I would not be surprised to learn that the church’s way of providing costs substantially more, in real, dollars and cents, than market cost, maybe even twice as much as just giving somebody the money and sending them to the nearest SuperWalMart. So why do we do it this way?

I don’t know the answer for sure, but I think it has something to do with the scriptures Elder Uchtdorf quoted. We fast and give an offering and volunteer at the farm or at the Helping Hands project and put on a hairnet and disposable apron at the cannery because it helps us to “remember the poor in all things”. It makes us part of them, and, in general conference parlance, it softens our hearts. As I consider my own testimony and life in the church, I realize that so much of what I believe is closely bound up with the church welfare system. The experiences I have had through it have influenced me even more than a mission, the Book of Mormon, or temple rituals. With your indulgence, I want to share just a few.

  • I wanted to get a job and earn money during the Summer I was 13. But my dad thought I was too young, so he made me a deal. His church calling made him responsible for the stake welfare farm, and he knew that the farm could use some extra work. He raised my allowance in exchange for my unskilled labor. Each morning that Summer I packed a lunch and rode my bike 45 minutes out to the farm. I spent many happy hours and days by myself, hoeing corn, shoveling out pig pens, irrigating crops, mending fences, and doing other chores. It pleased me to know that I was doing an adult’s work, and that I was helping to move the kingdom forward in a meaningful way.
  • It is an exhilarating experience to show up at the church sweet corn project at 3:00 a.m. and to see two more sets of headlights right behind you turn off the blacktop onto the dirt lane. Other men from the stake whom I had never met had also set their alarms for 2:30 so we could be ready for the farm’s water turn.
  • It’s great to see 500 people turn out early to help with the green bean harvest, and it’s humbling to be assigned the rows right next to a woman with a newborn child. She wanted to help, and she placed her baby in a a cardboard box covered with a blanket and pushed it down the rows in front of her as she worked. We only spoke a little, but I’ve remembered her example for two decades.

I think the church is interested not only in assisting the needy, but in helping the latter-day saints be part of that effort. It goes without saying that there are too many poor people, and that it costs a lot to care for them. We don’t have much control over any of that. But we do have control over our attitudes, and over the way we think and speak of people who need help. The really ingenious part of the LDS approach to providing for them is that it humbles everyone who participates.

I have heard it said before that sometime before the millennium, the Mormons will be so concerned with saving the dead that the temples will have to remain open night and day to accommodate the demand. Perhaps that is true. I also think it might be a reliable indicator that Zion is about to be established when we take seriously another part of the 4-fold mission of the church, to care for the poor and needy. I look forward to the day when the canneries will be busy 24/7 because the latter-day saints are anxiously engaged in this cause.


  1. Thank you for showing us an important reason for welfare farms and canneries–and for pointing out the skewed thinking which allows us to extol the Church system of welfare and recipients while condemning government welfare and recipients.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Wpw, the story of the woman with the cardboard box knocked my socks off! Great post, Mark.

  3. These posts are timely. I imagine they’ll only become more relevant in the near future. Here’s to not becoming “long haired preachers”.

    “Long-haired preachers come out every night,
    Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
    But when asked how ’bout something to eat
    They will answer in voices so sweet

    You will eat, bye and bye,
    In that glorious land above the sky;
    Work and pray, live on hay,
    You’ll get pie in the sky when you die”

    -Joe Hill, The Preacher and the Slave

  4. In foreign lands there are no welfare farms with volunteer labour any more, so it becomes more difficult to see the difference between “the Lords way” and the Governments way. Luckily we have a more caring government. Strangely the church culture is still to criticise the government and laud the Lords way.

    Pleased to see some realism in your post Mark. What would become of the 40million if they had no government support and turned to the Lord?

  5. Geoff A, I think that is actually part of the problem in principle. You’ve just replaced God with Government. If we’re talking about the Kingdom of God, I don’t really see an issue here, but that’s a rather optimistic (to put it charitably) way to view our governments. As Pres. Uchtdorf says, the effort to care for the poor is appreciated, but when it comes to many organizations and governments it’s not being done in the Lord’s way.

    What would happen if millions of people humbled themseves and turned to their neighbors for help and their neighbors were moved upon by the spirit of the Lord after seeing a son or daughter of God in need requesting help from them individually? One way is more likely to change hearts in both the giver and the receiver in the process of easing temporal burdens, which is really the thrust of Pres. Uchtdorf’s message.

    I appreciate the way this post can encourage others to become more Christlike by making an effort to take someone elses burdens upon themself through the welfare program. I’ve never felt the Holy Ghost when I look at my paystub (and maybe if I mediate on it more it might be possible), but I’ve rarely felt the spirit stronger than when I was dealing to the hungry and undoing the heavy burdens and focusing on the individual needs of a person in front of me, or through consecrating my time in service on projects that directly help others.

  6. I must question whether we at all times are so agreeable as to saying to ourselves that if the Bishop said a particular family needed assistance, then we won’t question. My wife served as a compassionate service leader for a period of time and there were several families who were continually asking for meals to be brought in because they couldn’t do this or that. Yet, they never came to church, let alone come to the front door and thank the sister or brother who brought the meal in on a particular day (rather, they’d send one of their kids to grab the food and close the door, little else). I know there were discussions had with the Bishop regarding such families and he indicated that the time would come when the Priesthood would sit down with those families and explain to them, Church assistance is not Government welfare.

    And yes, even as I write this, I am reminded of the Savior’s admonition of judging others, the mote in our own eyes, etc.
    At times, however, it does seem there are those who will take whatever they can get from Church members and Church provided assistance with no intent of leaving their idleness behind them….just like those in the World who defraud either the Welfare program, Unemployment and whatever other Government entitlement program may exist….

  7. I have always expected that some 3% or so of the population will be terminally unemployable. Think of all of the schizophrenic people and people with huge alcohol and drug problems, for example. Then there are the marginally unemployable, people with low skill levels in today’s high skill job market, who can work only sometimes. Then there are the people who become temporarily needy by recession (in the present recession, nearly permanently).

    These people, unless funded by the surrounding society, are at risk, many of them seriously. They and the children they have face homelessness, disease and early death. Most of us would gladly give to them as the least of these, our brethren. As you have pointed out, the cost of Church Welfare is not substantially lower than that of the government. However, the Church will never see the worst cases nor is Church Welfare set up, generally, to support people like these, the worst of whom appear in the most awful state of being, some needing hospitalization. The Church Welfare is generally set up to give to people only on a temporary basis.

    Then there are the people who will try to make a living off of the free stuff, who are inevitable in any system. Can they ever be eliminated? These people, like the ones cited above (#6), asking for meals, turn us off to the whole rest of the needy universe. The Church is not much better at sorting out these people than the state, as welfare cheats, given a busy bishop with lots on his mind, and part time at that.

    Bottom line is that the state welfare system is generally efficient in taking care of the most difficult cases, for which we should be glad, so that the Church does not have to do this.

    What is astounding to me is the utter generosity of the Church Welfare system. Each bishop has the checking account of the Church and can draw as much or as little as needed.

  8. “What is astounding to me is the utter generosity of the Church Welfare system. Each bishop has the checking account of the Church and can draw as much or as little as needed.”

    Um, this was not my impression when I served as RS president and working closely with the bishop to provide for the ward. Food, sure, he could get whatever from the storehouse, but food isn’t the only need.

    When it came to paying for rent or electric bills, he seemed to be in a constant state of triage, trying to determine how to spend those funds.

    Also, apparently the church is limited in what they can provide as far as health care. He could pay for an occasional prescription, but there was no help for ongoing needs. We had a sister who couldn’t afford her medication. She got it through a drug company program, which graciously provided it for a half a year, one quarter on, one quarter off. Since it took a few weeks to kick in, she was really only functional for a few months out of each year. But the church was not able to pay for the other months.

    Part of the “unemployable” group are those with unmet chronic health needs. I’ve literally seen people flounder for a decade or so, then when they turn 65 they are able to go back to steady work, because they finally have health insurance and can get the care they have needed.

    So I guess my point is that this post should have been entitled “Feeding the Poor,” not providing for them. There are so many other kinds of needs with which the church does not help.

  9. Great post and great comments. I love the recognition that the care we provide through the welfare system is really expensive, even more so if you actually calculate the value of all the donated labor (and even more so if you cost the labor out on opportunity cost versus market value – those 6-figure bean pickers!). One thing we get for this extra cost is often a more humanized form of care than the state can provide on its funds and Ray’s point is excellent about the self-selection in our system.

    Our system is particularly effective for helping those who are on the edge of not only employability but sustainable employability – an important niche. Not only can we provide some bridging help It is well placed to provide job contacts, references, and opportunities for those willing and able to work their way out of poverty. It combines a valuable activated network with assistance. We should be proud of that.

    In my mind, the risk of being frauded for one’s generosity simply has to be considered an expected cost of helping. We can spend too much emotional effort, time and energy worrying about this. While taking reasonable precautions to not get taken advantage of is obvious, so often we let these narratives and fears become a convenient excuse for doing little, less or nothing. This is what I found life altering about the King Benjamin address. How often do I “take advantage” or try to of the mercy of the Lord? And yet he gives anyway hoping someday I will change. The poor will be with us always including “the least of these” – those that have become so worn down and broken by circumstances or even their own choices. How we choose to treat them, especially in the richest society that has ever existed say more about our morality and discipleship of Christ than about anything else.

    Thanks again for a great post.

  10. “I think we must conclude that the poor outside the church are no less deserving than the poor who sit with us on the pews each Sunday, and it would behoove us to discontinue thinking and speaking of them in demeaning terms.”

    Thanks especially for this, Mark. Very true.

    I remember with a bitter fondness travelling to pick apples at a welfare farm south of Provo — bitter only because of the inconvenience to my very busy grad student schedule, but fondness because of the joy of picking apples in the very cold temperatures with other like-minded folks.

    Sadly our local cannery and farming projects are no longer operating; the closest we come to those assignments is a packing assignment at the storehouse once in a blue moon.

    #5 Chris, I am perplexed by your comment here and similar comments elsewhere that read Elder Uchtdorf’s talk as a condemnation of government welfare programs. I read it completely differently, namely that as a latter-day saint I must engage myself in contributing to welfare activities locally through my own labor and donations. Perhaps you hang your hat on this one phrase: “but the Lord’s way of caring for the needy is different from the world’s way.” But it seems you pay less attention to the other 99% of the talk which speaks of how as priesthood holders we are to serve the poor among us rather than sitting by the side of the stream and waiting for others to do it.

  11. it's a series of tubes says:

    Each bishop has the checking account of the Church and can draw as much or as little as needed.

    RW, this is not accurate. Naismith’s post below yours is much closer to the truth.

  12. @RW Actually there is a limit on how much a check can be made out for. I think it’s around $10,000 in the US but that may have changed.

    As a RS president I usually have to convince people to take assistance from the church. They are embarrassed and try to hide their problems.

  13. Reminds me of some of Sam’s thoughts packing Jello. Good stuff.

  14. Steve Evans says:

    Tremendous, Mark — thanks.

  15. With the exception of very large checks, the Bishop decides how much to spend. The monthly statements the Bishop receives tallys the amount spent from fast offering funds and the amount of fast offerings the wards contribute. The 2 aren’t tied together in any other way, other than this much was donated and this much was spent. I’ve had Bishops who kept it as a point of pride that even in a fairly poor ward we always donated more than we spent. Its possible there is some sort of pressure above the Bishop level to limit spending, but I haven’t heard of any. The miracle of the system is how the church has entrusted 28,660 Bishops with an open checkbook, and the church isn’t financially ruined because of it.

  16. We had a few stretches in our marriage where our health care expenses nearly overwhelmed us. Since it is difficult for the Church to pay for health care costs, the bishop would help with costs that were much easier. A food order or utility bills would free up our funds for those medical bills. In a tradeoff that I would rather not have made, now that my wife has passed, those medical expenses are gone, and I pay much more to fast offerings than I ever have. I guess I feel some kind of karmic debt that I have to repay. I still have a long way to go to make up for the help we received.

  17. Nice work Mark.

  18. Trying as hard as I can says:

    My husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness 4 months ago. After the diagnosis we sat down and looked at our finances, trying to find a way to cover the additional expenses we knew were coming. We decided to ask to be put ‘on the truck’ as that would save us roughly $200/month which would cover what we needed. My husband is retired and on Medicare; I am still employed. Now, in addition to my job I have to be a nurse to my husband who is more or less bedridden as well as run our household alone. That wasn’t a complaint, just a description of how stretched I am right now. My RS President asked me to do some computer work for her and was kind enough to suggest that it might acceptable as the work I need to do in trade for our food order. I would have been happy to do the work for her anyway; I find that kind of thing is therapeutic. But the idea that I am somehow incurring a debt to the church that I need to pay back on top of everything else that is going on just about put me over the edge.

  19. Mark Brown says:

    For what it’s worth, I think the idea that we can somehow go in debt to the church is pernicious. God blesses us all the time in ways we need and doesn’t ask a thing in return.

    Trying, I hope you can get the support you need in your difficult situation. I hope your ward and the people around you can be a source of help.

  20. #18: My own experience as a bishop was that asking for “work” in return for assistance was often the most difficult thing I had to do, particularly in such a case like the one you describe. My approach was to counsel with the member involved to determine what — if anything — might be reasonable. After all, we can only run as fast as we can run. And, in fact, in a situation like yours, we might have tried to find a way to relieve some of the responsibility in the home, such as looking for others who could provide the service of caring for the ill spouse, at least temporarily.

    (And had my RS president tried to arrange a “work” assignment without conferring with me, I would have been concerned.)

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