In the teeth of the Great Depression, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormons—created what has become America’s broadest private system of economic aid to persons in distress. The church began by matching unemployed members with farms that needed harvest labor. Then it distributed food and goods to church members, requiring them in turn to provide some service to another member of the congregation—say, some home repair for an elderly widow, or care of another family’s children. From the beginning the system was premised on mutual aid and helping people meet their own needs, and resources have always been distributed with the aim of getting recipients back into independent and healthy self-support.
There are three major elements to today’s Mormon welfare system. The first is tithing. Church members are expected to donate 10 percent of their income, and most get in the habit from an early age such that it becomes an automatic habit. Tithe offerings are used primarily to maintain and extend the church: erect buildings, plant new congregations, offer religious education, produce instructional literature, support the missions program that has made Mormonism one of the fastest growing faiths on the planet.
The second charitable element in the LDS church is the monthly fast offering. Congregants fast on one day each month, and are asked to donate about what they would have spent for two meals to fund the system of Bishop’s Storehouses. There is a massive main distribution center in Utah that contains food and other living supplies purchased with fast offerings, and a dedicated fleet of 100 tractor trailers to move goods among five regional storehouses and more than 200 local storehouses. When a member of the church (or sometimes an outsider) is in trouble, he or she goes privately to the local church bishop and asks for help. The bishop fills out an order which allows that person to “shop” free of charge at a local storehouse.
The bishop also sets into motion church-provided services to help the applicant get back on his feet. This could include job referrals or training, or employing him directly at one of the 40 church thrift stores. It could include help with family budgeting, marital counseling, addiction services, or whatever else is needed. This help is usually provided by church members themselves, many of whom are very successful in their professional lives and thus well positioned to assist. If “we wait for experts with specialized knowledge to solve specific problems,” warns church official Dieter Uchtdorf, “we deprive our neighbor of the service we could render and we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to serve.”
A third component of the Mormon welfare system is LDS Charities. This agency channels voluntary donations to millions of needy persons in 179 countries overseas. Donors offering funds here do so on top of their annual tithes and fast offerings.
- Philanthropy magazine reporting, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/a_welfare_system_that_works