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.