One of America's greatest strengths, if not its most distinctive characteristic, has always been its extensive network of private efforts to solve personal, family, and community problems. When it comes to dealing effectively with such social concerns, government is not by a long shot the only game in town.

Indeed, given the expensive quagmire that government is widely conceded to have created with welfare programs, private efforts are providing a beacon for progress and reform. As management expert Peter Drucker has put it, non-profit agencies in the private sector "spend far less for results than governments spend for failure." What America needs, he says, is "a public policy that establishes the nonprofits as the country's first line of attack on its social problems."

Nonprofits are spearheading an unprecedented number of local programs to combat a wide range of pressing social concerns: hunger, illiteracy, homelessness, welfare dependency, drug use, and teen pregnancy, to name a few. The secret to their success is accountability, since they are run by local people who are closest to the problems and have a strong incentive to manage resources wisely and get the job done. Michigan is home to two new and innovative programs that deserve special attention.

In October 1991, Michigan ended its General Assistance program for able-bodied, single adults. In the mid-Michigan town of Harrison, a group of concerned volunteers wanted to help former GA recipients by easing their transition to productive self-reliance. The volunteers' efforts resulted in the creation of a unique, privately-funded assistance center called Hard Times Cafe.

Once a week on Thursday afternoons, former GA recipients (as many as 50 at one time, ranging in age from 18 to 63) gather at St. Athanasius Church for a hot meal, companionship and some very innovative counseling--all designed to instill new incentives for the clients to get control of their lives. They share their concerns in an atmosphere of trust and respect. They learn thinking, planning, and organization skills, as well as good work habits.

They also earn "Hard Times Dollars" which are redeemable in personal needs items from soap to toothpaste. Recipients earn the goods, donated by churches and businesses, by displaying positive work habits while performing designated community service work. They do carpentry, maintenance, and gardening work; they help out at a local YMCA camp; and they've been busy planting trees along US-27. With sufficient "dollars" they can even obtain vouchers for rent, house payments, taxes, utilities, transportation and medical needs, funded through private grants.

The government welfare system requires people to constantly confirm their inability to meet their personal and family needs, and reduces benefits for people who work. Hard Times Cafe does just the opposite: it infuses a "can-do" spirit of independence and rewards its patrons who exhibit positive, pro-work attitudes. The project's organizers, including a Volunteer Coordinator in the Clare County Department of Social Services and Catholic Family Services of the Archdiocese of Saginaw, report remarkable success with high client motivation and glowing endorsements from work supervisors.

Meanwhile, in Grand Rapids, another locally-conceived program is helping people rebuild their lives. Faith, Inc. is a non-profit organization, started by Heartside Area Ministries, formed to help the homeless get jobs, training and counseling.

During the daytime, Faith's director, Verne Barry, seeks out homeless people, welfare recipients and otherwise discouraged individuals from the area and offers them a chance to help themselves. In the evening, Faith, Inc. utilizes a portion of a 100,000 square foot manufacturing warehouse owned by Hope Network (a work facility for the developmentally disabled), which is normally closed after 4:00 p.m. Faith employees teach these individuals "whom everyone else has written off" to perform light assembly and packaging jobs--real work needed to fill orders for private contracts awarded to Hope Network. At the end of the week, each employee receives a paycheck, many for the first time in years.

Faith ensures each individual receives counseling from a variety of private organizations in order to improve their work habits and lifestyles--and overcome substance abuse and emotional problems. With very limited resources, Faith has helped 52 people get off public assistance, either fully or partially, and many have moved on to higher paying, steady jobs.

The key to Faith's success, according to Barry, is that its clients work, and in doing so they develop important life skills--personal decision-making, self-reliance, and responsibility. He questions government programs which spend millions of dollars annually to teach and train people "how to work" in lieu of the real thing. "At Faith, we don't send them to `assessment school' for six months to decide what career they would like," he said. "We help them start working immediately. It's essential to enhancing their self-worth."

The experience of Hard Times Cafe and Faith, Inc. add credence to this comment from Marc Bendick of the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute: "Through their small scale, non-bureaucratic nature, local knowledge and personal relationships, neighborhoods, families, churches and voluntary associations can respond rapidly, accurately and in a more acceptable manner to local and individual needs in ways that large, formal institutions such as government agencies cannot."

As local, state, and federal governments search for a way out of the social welfare morass, the most instructive alternatives are already forming in our midst. Let's take a look at them, encourage them, and thereby assist many needy people in the process.