Mitt Romney has raised the issue of the social safety net. Washington could learn from the lesson of his church.
Salt Lake City
Ever since Mitt Romney said he was “not concerned about the very poor” but would fix America’s social safety net “if it needs repair,” conservatives and liberals have been frantically making suggestions. Gov. Romney says he would consider options like restructuring Medicaid. But if he wants to see a welfare system that lets almost no one fall through the cracks while at the same time ensuring that its beneficiaries don’t become lifelong dependents, he could look to his own church.
As I ride in a golf cart through a new 15-acre warehouse on the outskirts of Utah’s capital, I can’t help but wonder: How many Wal-Marts would fit in here? How many burgers can you make from 4,400 industrial pallets of frozen meat? And how do they keep this place cleaner than my kitchen floor?
Dedicated last month, the Bishops Central Storehouse contains a two-year supply of food to support the Mormon church’s welfare system in the U.S. and Canada (primarily for church members in need) and its humanitarian program, which sends food, medical supplies and other necessities to the needy (of all faiths) world-wide.
In addition to goods from canned peaches to emergency generators, the facility also houses the church’s own trucking company, complete with 43 tractors and 98 trailers, as well as a one-year supply of fuel, parts and tires for the vehicles. Just in case.
The storehouse is not only a kind of physical marvel — it has been built to withstand an earthquake with a magnitude as high as 7.5 — but also a symbol of strength and self-sufficiency.
Launched during the Great Depression, the Mormon welfare system was designed by church leaders as a way to match the armies of the unemployed faithful with some of the nearby farms that needed temporary labor. As storehouse manager Richard Humpherys explains, goods and services were traded so that if a father needed food for his family he could get some in exchange for, say, repairing the fence of a widow down the road.
Mormons and U.S. Marines carry aid to landslide victims in central Philippines in 2006.
In 1936, Heber Grant, one of the church leaders, reported the reasoning behind this effort: “Our primary purpose was to set up insofar as it might be possible, a system under which the curse of idleness would be done away with, the evils of a dole abolished and independence, industry, thrift and self respect be once more established among our people. The aim of the Church is help the people to help themselves. Work is to be re-enthroned as the ruling principle of the lives of our Church membership.”
Over the ensuing decades, the church acquired farms and ranches of its own. It built grain silos and dairies and canneries to store and process the food. By the end of World War II, church leaders had enough in the way of reserves that they contacted President Truman to ask if they might assist in feeding and clothing the destitute across Europe. The president readily agreed.
Because it has members on the ground around the world, the church continues to be an important force in bringing food and supplies to the impoverished and victims of natural disasters. Local church leaders contact the central headquarters in Salt Lake City to tell them what is needed — gauze pads, school supplies, wheelchairs — and the church does its best to accommodate.
The Department of Defense recently visited the new storehouse to find out how the Mormons are able to mobilize so quickly, and there is an almost military sense of efficiency and strategy to the church’s efforts. When Hurricane Katrina struck, for instance, the church had positioned its fully loaded trucks in a kind of semicircle from South Carolina to Texas because no one knew how the storm was going to move. The church used reserves of fuel that it has placed around the country, and drivers were able to bring full tanker trucks into New Orleans, powering rescue vehicles and even chain saws to remove tree limbs.
Most of the inventory in the central storehouse, though, goes to supply more than 100 smaller storehouses around the country, plus hundreds of soup kitchens and homeless shelters of other religious communities around North America. Members of the Mormon church who find themselves in difficult circumstances can go to their local bishop and ask for aid.
The bishop then fills out an order allowing them to go and receive food from the local storehouse. Seventy percent of the items on the shelves are produced by the church itself and the remainder are purchased at steep wholesale discounts. According to Rick Foster, who oversees a smaller storehouse in Salt Lake City along with the cannery and dairy at Welfare Square (the original site of all the church’s welfare services), people depend on the food at the storehouse for an average of three to six months
That’s because the church’s goal is to help them get back on their feet as soon as possible. And the storehouse is only one of the tools at the disposal of local bishops, who may also refer members to other church programs, including employment counseling or family services. The bishop may even use money from a fund at his disposal to help pay for education, housing or utilities.
The labor behind the farming, food production, counseling and even cattle ranching is provided almost entirely by volunteers. Some are retired folks who come in every day. Other times an entire ward, or congregation, will come for the day, each of the members standing on an industrial assembly line packaging bread, processing cheese or sealing jars of apple sauce.
Regular tithing by church members helps pay for the facilities, but the primary source of capital support is the Mormons’ monthly fast, as church members are asked to contribute what they would have spent on two meals. Many give much more, says Mr. Foster.
It is safe to assume that Mr. Romney is among them. The tens of millions of dollars he has given the church over the years have raised suspicion in some quarters. What does the church do with all that cash? Wouldn’t that money have been better spent paying a higher income-tax rate? But his donations are supporting the kind of safety net that government can never hope to create. Jesus may have said the poor will always be with you, but he didn’t say Medicaid would.
Ms. Riley, a former Journal editor, writes frequently about religion.