Friday, May 28, 2004

Bush Supports Vouchers

No, not education vouchers: charity vouchers. James Kushiner of Touchstone reports on a meeting between President Bush and "a small group of religious journalists". It isn't clear from the text if Kushiner was actually at this meeting, but I assume so since he doesn't provide a link to a published article:

He also called his “Faith Based Initiative” efforts one of the most important efforts of his presidency. “Government can hand out money, but it can’t put love in peoples’ lives,” he said. Government should help support institutions that get results, whether they are religiously motivated or not. Religious ministries that change hearts are “important part in changing society, one heart at a time.” The latest idea is to provide vouchers to individuals needing, for example, alcohol or drug rehabilitation and et them choose which programs to use, faith-based or otherwise.

There is more to the article, but I found this single idea fascinating. There are several advantages to using vouchers, which are a kind of limited use legal tender, as opposed to direct payments to organizations. This eliminates the issue of government support for religion and also introduces an element of competition among charities, which would tend to make the providers less bureaucratic and more service-oriented. Of course, this latter point assumes that the recipients of these vouchers have enough initiative to seek out charities that provide better service -- not at all a foregone conclusion. But it still seems likely to produce better results than the current system.

One intriguing idea would be if private citizens could purchase these vouchers. These could then be given out, say, to panhandlers. The virtue here would be that individuals (ore even churches who could not afford to actually provide services) could give "money" that could not be used for illicit purposes. Of course, the recipient could try to sell them on the street, but anyone buying them would immediately know that the money wasn't going to food or shelter. I've actually wanted something like this for a long time.

One big drawback that I can see would be that such a system is the commercial aspect that it seems to impose upon charities. Having a voucher would seem to make one entitled to service, whereas most charities would not turn away people without vouchers. Thus it is not quite clear what benefit the recipient would gain from having the voucher, or what incentive they would have to seek one. If I need food or shelter, am I going to be inclined to go to a government agency for a voucher which will not gain me any particular advantage? Or will charities be inclined to give preferential treatment to the "paying" clients at the expense of those without vouchers, who presumably would include those most in need of help?

This seems like a sufficiently serious problem that it might well be a deal-killer. Further exploration might generate a creative solution that I can't see yet. But I like the fact that Bush is putting ideas up for public discourse. This is certainly an approach I hadn't considered before, and I'm not aware that it has been publicly discussed elsewhere.

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