Byte the Hand That Feeds Them? Yes

January 06, 1994

For any society, finding a way to dispense charity poses a difficult dilemma: What restrictions should be applied so that people don't receive more than their fair share or become dependent on handouts? President Clinton wants us to confront the quandary with national welfare reform. On a local level, Howard County faces similar questions now that a data base may be created to allow non-profit organizations, churches and other groups to determine whether they are aiding people truly in need.

Implicit in the data base concept is that charitable groups would be able to look over the shoulders of potential clients to verify what kind of services they are already receiving. Inherent in that is an attempt to punish or at least withhold aid to those who would go door-to-door with a problem that never existed or was long ago taken care of.

Interestingly, not every potential beneficiary of such a system is entirely happy with this new access. Andrea Ingram, director of Grassroots, a non-profit organization that houses the county's homeless, believes that when a group spends too much of its time trying to ferret out the relatively few cases of fraud, the agency's focus becomes dulled. She would prefer a data base designed to help agencies work together to provide services.

The county's Community Action Council, which hopes to create the data base, feels the problem of fraud is much larger, though, and believes that small churches in particular are vulnerable to con games. "There's a lot of needy people. . . but they are being deprived by people abusing the system," said William O. Crowe, director of the Howard County Baptist Association, which represents 19 county churches.

Ms. Ingram and Mr. Crowe are both right: A data base can be an excellent tool for determining when charity is necessary. It also can be useful in helping organizations coordinate services.

For example, more than 700 individuals and families found themselves homeless last year in Howard. A whopping 42 percent sought shelter because of domestic violence. Grassroots found itself having to turn away many due to lack of funds. Beyond the homeless, countless others find themselves living on the margins, in need of some sort of assist. A data base would help agencies target those most in need, and bring greater efficiency to the delivery of already-strained services.

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