Advocates of big government often justify this desire on a theory that big government will “help the poor.” Unfortunately, government is an ineffective and inefficient vehicle for helping people out of poverty. More importantly, big government’s rules and regulations — again, aimed at “helping the little man” or “leveling the playing field” — often lead to more harm than good. A recent story from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette provides an excellent example.
Bethlehem House in Conway is a nonprofit ministry for the homeless. Founded in 1991, the group has served the needy in Faulkner County for over twenty years. Their ministry has expanded beyond their current capacity, so Bethlehem House is currently constructing a new, two-story shelter. They underwent a massive capital construction campaign in 2012, raking in $1.39 million and exceeding their fundraising goal by $90,000. But, thanks to government regulations, the group needs even more cash to complete their project.
Executive Director Judi Lively told the ADG in an interview:
There have been some unexpected expenses. We’re probably $80,000 short of what we need, but more importantly, it’s affected our operational giving.
Most of that $80,000 of “unexpected expenses” didn’t go to building additional living space, investing in educational materials or clothing for the homeless, or purchasing more food. “Most of it is city-code related,” Lively said. Jill Imboden, development coordinator for the group, agreed. She said “almost all of it” is related to complying with government regulations.
But government regulations aren’t always bad, right? Sometimes they make us safer — or at least make us feel safer. Perhaps these compliance costs were safety related? Not quite.
One compliance expense was for the construction of a fence, but not just any fence — a brick fence. The group had planned to construct a “nice wooden fence,” but city code required that the barrier be built out of brick. “That was a chunk of change; it was big,” Imboden said.
Additionally, the group had to construct their driveway with asphalt instead of concrete because of “problems with the soil,” this despite the results of a soil sample, Lively said. And exterior stairs that will serve as a fire escape had to be enclosed “because the fireproof paint wasn’t exterior paint.” The facility will also have to be painted with “light-colored and easy to wash” walls to comply with Arkansas Department of Health guidelines.
To recap, the bulk of $80,000 is going to compliance costs instead of going to actually help the needy — while this nonprofit, like many others, is struggling to raise funds in this Obama economy.
Why does the fence have to be brick? Why does the driveway have to be asphalt? There’s no reasonable reason I can think of. I sure hope it’s not because city officials thought brick and asphalt are prettier. Maybe there was a mason on the City Council at the time the rule was passed — who knows? But I can think of no good reason why these regulations are more important than helping those in need.
This story is an exemplary — and educational — reminder of the unintended consequences that can flow from unnecessary government regulations. For every government action, there is a reaction in the real world. In this case, unnecessary rules about fences and paint hinder the ability of charitable, compassionate people to help the least fortunate among us. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with having reasonable building codes in place, but when we reach the point that these rules are hurting the poor and helping nobody, I have to think we’ve gone too far.