A Welfare System That Works

The Latter-day Saints are proving that private citizens can support a vast and effective social welfare system.

When Reed Mellor was growing up, his father would pick up hitchhikers, bring them home for dinner, and invite them to stay overnight. The next morning, he would give them $20 before sending them on their way. “You know, you’re being taken advantage of,” Mellor recalls telling his dad, a schoolteacher who had to work summers on a farm to make ends meet. His father replied, “That’s okay. It won’t be the last time. I’d rather give to lots than miss the one who needs my help.” It was not just the hitchhikers who were the beneficiaries of his father’s generosity. The Mellors were (and are) devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; they gave dutifully to the church and all of its activities.

Today, it is Reed himself who takes this approach. Reed is a successful engineer with his own business outside of Salt Lake City. He and his wife, Lareen, who works as an accountant in the business, are by any measure quite generous with the success they’ve enjoyed. Their charitable giving starts with tithing. “Everything on earth is God’s,” he says. “We are just required to give him 10 percent back.” In this, the Mellors are representative of Mormons in general. Tithing is expected, and widely practiced.

In addition to tithing, Latter-day Saints regularly donate a “fast offering.” The Church designates one Sunday every month as a day of fasting, to be observed by healthy members by forgoing food and drink for two consecutive meals, and dedicating what would have been spent on those meals to help care for those in need. Many Mormons—the Mellors included—choose to give more than the equivalent of two meals. “As our business grew,” says Mellor, “we tried to come up with a bigger and bigger number. We feel as if the Lord has opened windows of Heaven to us. Our offering to him has to be a sacrifice.”

But that’s not all. In addition to their tithes, which go toward the operation of the church, and the fast offering, which goes to support the church’s extensive welfare system, the Mellors also contribute to other major projects through LDS Philanthropies. Among other things, they have funded the building of wells in Africa, the construction of homes in Mexico, and the creation of a scholarship at Brigham Young University. In this, too, their practice is illustrative of widespread practices among Mormons, who routinely make charitable contributions above and beyond their tithes and fast offerings.

Tithing and Fasting

Americans of faith tend to give more to charity than their secular counterparts. The more observant they are, the more generous they tend to be. But as Robert Putnam and David Campbell point out in their book American Grace, “Mormons are strikingly more active in giving and volunteering of all sorts, even taking into account their high levels of religious observance.”

Tithing is the most straightforward element of the Church’s charitable program. The commandment to donate 10 percent of one’s income finds its origins in the Old Testament: “And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord’s: it is holy unto the Lord” (Leviticus 27:30). Just as the tithing by the Israelites is then given by the Lord to the Levites for the upkeep of the Temple, so tithing by Mormons largely goes to the Church itself for religious purposes. Tithes fund things like the construction of places of worship, the production of religious literature, the provision of religious education, and support for the worldwide missionary program.

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Harvesting peaches in Ogden, Utah, for a Deseret Industries cannery. Photo by Kathryn Harmon.

The monthly fast offering has a somewhat different purpose. It is specifically meant to fulfill the biblical directives—like that in Isaiah 58—to care for the poor. If you can only afford to spend a few dollars on those two monthly meals, then the Church simply asks that you contribute that.

Both the tithe and the fast offering have the feel of a flat tax. No matter what your income, you pay a proportional amount. Steve Peterson, the managing director of welfare services for the Church, says that members see tithing and the fast offering not only as a “scriptural responsibility,” but as an “opportunity for us to build God’s kingdom.” “Most members,” he says, “will tell you that they can’t afford not to pay.”

Working Welfare

That spirit of generosity funds a vast private welfare system, one that serves hundreds of thousands of people each year. This welfare system serves mostly—but not exclusively—fellow Latter-day Saints who are in need. It is intended for people who have lost their jobs, who have been injured, or whose families are going through some other kind of hardship. Self-sufficiency is at the heart of its mission—both for the givers and receivers.

At the heart of the welfare system is a recently opened facility in Salt Lake City, the Bishop’s Central Storehouse. It warehouses mountains of food and supplies, which are distributed to central storehouses in five other regions of the United States and Canada. From those five regional storehouses, food and goods are again distributed to more than 200 smaller bishops’ storehouses, to be used for the Church’s welfare system. The Bishop’s Central Storehouse also keeps emergency equipment and supplies that can be instantly dispatched whenever a catastrophic disaster occurs.

The size of the Bishop’s Central Storehouse gives a sense of scale to Mormon welfare and humanitarian efforts. Situated on 35 acres, the building’s current footprint is 570,391 square feet, with plans to add 100,000 more. The total planned capacity of the building is 65,000 pallets, and it stocks hundreds of foods—from corn, beans, and cereals to cheese, ice cream, and peanut butter—as well as toiletries, tools, and electric generators. It has its own trucking company, complete with nearly 50 tractors and 100 trailers, as well as a one-year supply of fuel, parts, and tires for the vehicles. The facility has even been built to withstand a 7.5-magnitude earthquake.

When members are in need of the Church’s welfare services, they can go to their local bishop and apply for assistance. The bishop then fills out an order that allows them to “shop,” free of charge, at one of the local Church-run storehouses. But the bishop’s order is only one part of a larger formal plan to get the recipient back on his or her feet as soon as possible. People use food at the storehouse for an average of three to six months. The overriding concern is to help people overcome adversity and become self-sufficient once again.

To that end, bishops will also refer recipients to employment or family-counseling services or addiction recovery programs, or use money from a fund at his disposal to help pay for education, housing, or utilities. The church doesn’t have its own shelters, but it contracts with local organizations to make sure that those facilities are available when necessary. Those with particularly acute needs—for example, refugees from other countries, former prisoners, or addicts—can find employment in one of more than 40 Deseret Industries thrift stores. There they will receive social services addressed to their needs: ESL instruction, job placement, or counseling.

Perhaps even more impressive than the financial interventions is the amount of personal time and expertise that successful Latter-day Saints will devote to helping out their struggling neighbors. A recent Washington Post story on Mitt Romney’s years serving as a Church leader in Boston provided a peek at patterns that recur in many cities, among many members. During the very same years when he was building Bain Capital and helping raise five children, Romney devoted 20 to 30 hours per week to church service, including many social-welfare projects. According to the Post, he routinely “picked up the phone to help the unemployed members of his congregation find work. He acted as a marriage counselor and a mentor to troubled teens and provided a willing ear to lonely widows. . . . Romney reached out to the network of business leaders in the congregation to help put people on solid financial footing.” Many of his fellow congregants were just as involved. For instance, the Post describes a Harvard Business School professor sitting down with a fellow church member to help him develop a family budget and then a path to a better job.

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Ronald Reagan visits the Bishop's Central Storehouse during his presidency.

A Program of Self-help

This extensive program of mentoring, charity, and self-help began during the Great Depression. It was originally envisioned as a way to match the armies of the unemployed faithful with some of the nearby farms that needed temporary labor. According to Richard Humphries, the manager of the Bishop’s Central Storehouse, goods and services were basically bartered. If, say, a father needed food for his family, he could claim some from the storehouse in exchange for pledging to repair the fence of a widow down the road.

Heber J. Grant, the seventh president of the Church, instituted the system of welfare. “Our primary purpose,” he explained in 1936, “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 to help people to help themselves. Work is to be re-enthroned as the ruling principle of the lives of our Church membership.”

The goal of self-reliance has long infused all aspects of the program. 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 the Second World War, its leaders had enough in the way of reserves that they began to distribute food and clothing across Europe—a private-sector Marshall Plan of sorts.

Dieter F. Uchtdorf, the second counselor in the First Presidency, grew up in occupied Germany. He saw firsthand the fruits of the Church’s labors. “Even though I was a young child,” he recalled in a recent sermon, “I still remember the sweet taste of canned peaches with cooked wheat and the special smell of donated clothing sent to the postwar German Saints by caring Church members from the United States. I will never forget and I will always cherish these acts of love and kindness to those of us who were in great need.”

But, Uchtdorf noted, the program always has self-reliance as its goal. He relates the story of a 1941 flood in the Duncan Valley in Arizona. The local stake president (the leader of a number of church congregations) sent a telegram to Salt Lake City, asking for a “large sum of money.” Heber Grant instead sent three men who brought a message from the president: “This isn’t a program of ‘give me.’ This is a program of self-help.” The stake president understood, and organized hundreds of men from his own area to build fences, haul hay, and do everything else required to repair the flooded area.

“By following the Lord’s way,” writes Uchtdorf, the people “not only had their immediate needs met, but they also developed self-reliance, alleviated suffering, and grew in love and unity as they served each other.” The lesson was clear. “Perhaps,” he concludes, “we wait for experts with specialized knowledge to solve specific problems. When we do this, we deprive our neighbor of the service we could render and we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to serve.” The fact of the matter is that “there will never be enough [experts] to solve all the problems.”

Humanitarian Choices

A third component of the Church’s giving is overseas assistance. In addition to tithing and the monthly fast offering, Latter-day Saints can also choose to give to humanitarian aid through their Church. Funded separately from the welfare program, LDS Charities (as the program is called) serves the impoverished and victims of natural and man-made disasters abroad. Its major initiatives include providing clean water, wheelchairs, immunization, vision care, and neonatal resuscitation kits. There is never any proselytizing involved in these efforts, and the vast majority of recipients are not themselves Latter-day Saints. In 2011, LDS Charities offered assistance to more than 2 million people in over 130 nations.

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From left, Lareen and Reed Mellor at the home of Maria during a humanitarian trip to Nichmamtic, Chipas, Mexico.

Kim Bertin, a self-proclaimed “mostly retired” orthopedic surgeon in Salt Lake City, describes the tithing and offering slips that are placed in a box outside of his local bishop’s office. The columns on the left are divided by the type of gift (including tithing, fast offering, humanitarian fund). “This slip allows me as a member of the church to designate to which specific area I’d like my contributions directed,” he notes. “Church members understand where their money is going—and its importance.”

Being able to see where the money is going encouraged Kim and his wife, Jennifer, to start giving greater amounts. The couple traveled to Kenya and Uganda to see how clean water, education, and agricultural initiatives were being launched by the Church. “It was amazing to see how impactful it was for a small village in Uganda to have clean water every day that they didn’t have to haul from miles away,” says Bertin. “It improves health, and the time it saves allows residents to pursue other things, like educating their children.”

Ultimately, the inspiration for these humanitarian efforts is found in the Book of Mormon. Many Latter-day Saints invoke Jacob 2:19: “And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.”

Bertin echoes the sentiment. “When you’re baptized,” he explains, “you recognize that your heavenly Father has given you a lot—the breath that you breathe, the strength you use to walk, and the insight of the Gospel. For all these things, you are indebted to Him.”

Growing Up Giving

About a dozen years ago, and with guidance from LDS Philanthropies, the Bertins established a family foundation. It was a way not only for the Bertins to be more intentional about their giving but also to encourage their children to think about philanthropy. “It was really cool to see the evolution. The young children would hear about a project and say, ‘Yes, that’s fine.’ Now they come to us with research about new organizations and they support some on their own as well.” The family now includes three children’s spouses and eight grandchildren, and has directed its funds toward both LDS and non-LDS projects, including a scholarship at BYU, Operation Smile, several microloan projects, a local school district, and Room to Read, which establishes children’s literacy programs in impoverished areas of Africa and Asia.

The Mellors have likewise started a family foundation. They made the decision when their older daughter was going through a rebellious period. She was, says Reed, “starting to make choices that were contrary to our beliefs.” They decided it was time to think more seriously about ways to shape their children’s values. “You never hear anyone say, ‘I inherited $1 million and it turned my life around,’” notes Reed. “I want to raise kids who are worthy of my faith,” he explains. “And I want them to be contributing members of society.”

Their teenage sons are now very involved in the foundation’s projects, both researching new recipients as well as donating their own money to the causes. The foundation gives away about 20 to 30 percent of its worth annually. Reed is still working—and continues adding to the coffers. “We could retire,” he says. “But this is my passion. I want to work to help other people.”

The Mellors and the Bertins are obviously exceptional in terms of the amount they give, but neither couple waited until they became wealthy to start giving. All four come from families where tithing was expected starting at eight years of age, when Latter-day Saints are baptized. In this, they are representative of their fellow Mormons. In recent months, I have had the opportunity to interview about two dozen young-adult Mormons. In most American communities, men and women in their 20s and early 30s are among the least likely to donate. They are just starting out in their careers, moving from one place to another, getting used to the expenses of living on their own. They feel as though they have every reason not to give.

But Latter-day Saints in this demographic tell me without exception that tithing has not been a struggle for them at all. They have tithed since childhood—income from their allowances, from summer jobs, from internship stipends, from birthday gifts. By the time they get their first real jobs, they are already in the habit of giving to charity.

Those habits, bred early and practiced widely, are what make possible this beehive of generosity. And they are showing the world one model for building a large, effective, and private social welfare system—a model that works.

Naomi Schaefer Riley writes about religion frequently for the Wall Street Journal. Her book on interfaith marriage will be published by Oxford University Press in the spring.