Jane Galt has a reflective post on the public-income-support-vs.-private-charity issue. It’s all worth reading.
I continue to be puzzled about why we think that, unlike virtually everything else we want to get done, the specific job of providing one-to-one service to poor people is the one that needs to be done by people not specifically talented at it or trained in it, most of whom also don’t want to do it. Not only is it in some sense inefficient to have an engineer working in a food pantry, but there’s reason to worry that people who are dragooned into volunteering by social pressure may take out the resulting aggression (mostly without being aware of it) on those they’re supposed to be helping. Unless the consciousness-raising benefits are really overwhelming, why shouldn’t a well-off person with a social conscience just spend those hours at work and write a check to pay someone whose comparative advantage is in serving food or helping kids with their homework?
I think there may be an answer to that question in the difficulty of managing the social-service process, but I’d still be inclined to think that the solution ought to lie somewhere in the direction of improving social-service management. Think about it: if you needed help, would you rather be helped by an amateur or a professional?
Glen Whitman has done the same analysis (first) about the legal profession, and calls the resulting prescription “proxy bono.” He discusses as a possible advantage of non-proxy pro bono work what he calls “character development,” but suggests that the marginal value of an hour of pro bono work in developing character may fall sharply after the first few hours. Perhaps as important, or more important, than “character” is what might be called “education.” A lawyer who has actually done a substantial amount of legal services work may have a different, and more accurate view, of the legal problems facing poor people than one who has merely written a check, in ways that may be reflected when that lawyer serves on a Bar Association board or ALI committee, or as a legislator or a judge. That’s more or less the Peace Corps model, and it has real value. Perhaps actually working in a soup kitchen has similar benefits.