Philanthropy and Civil Society with J.P. DeGance and Leah Hughey

Bill WaltonCulture, Economics, Podcast

About 15 years ago, Frank Keating, then the Republican governor of Oklahoma, gave a talk at The Heritage Foundation about what he had done to revive the economy in his state.

He said he asked the economics departments of the state’s two flagship universities – University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State – to identify the top factors that were holding back the state economically. 

They crunched the numbers, interviewed experts, reviewed the data and came back a few months later with a startling conclusion – the biggest drag on Oklahoma’s economy was divorce. 

Marriages breaking apart left both partners poorer, less able to participate in the economy and less employable since transportation becomes more of a problem. 

Children of divorced parents found their prospects dimmed as well by poorly performing schools and often chaotic home lives not conducive to academic achievement. 

It’s yet another problem that is much easier to identify than to solve. Business has an interest in stable, economically sound families, and government forms a backstop. But neither truly can own the problem – business has to focus on its bottom line, and government is a blunt-force instrument not well suited to solving nuanced social problems. 

There’s a third way – often a better way and with a long American tradition – men and women tackling big social problems by pouring their energy and money into voluntary civil society efforts, what Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke called little platoons.

Leah Hughey, who joined me on Common Ground recently, works with one such group – FlourishNow in Jacksonville, Fla. She was joined by J.P. DeGance of the Philanthrophy Roundtable, which is helping to support the group.

They are developing programs to enhance the ability of local churches to expand their reach by providing detailed data to help identify needs and practical force-multiplying initiatives to address them. And one of those ways is a ministry that helps address the problem Keating identified 15 years ago – divorce. 

The program, which works with couples planning to marry, couples in crisis and even the happily married to strengthen bonds is credited with helping reduce the divorce rate in Jacksonville by 26 percent in just three years. 

But what makes this program different is not only its astonishing success rate, it’s the way they want to bring it to every community in America.

Working with a group of experienced business executives and donors with extensive success in franchising, they hope to offer the program to churches throughout America. The plan is spread it the way Col. Sanders grew the Kentucky Fried Chicken brand – not by building stores but by licensing the recipe to already existing small restaurants. The goal is not only to reduce divorce rates, but also to drive an increase in church attendance by couples who participate in the program. The hope, of course, is these people will turn to the church for other needs and eventually become part of its family. 

And, as J.P. DeGance said, “perhaps our country’s biggest miracle drug is going to church.” Regular churchgoers are healthier, happier and better able to negotiate downturns in life. For instance, unemployed churchgoers find jobs much more quickly than those who don’t attend. They belong to communities, and they themselves take on and solve the problems in their communities.  

Some on the left argue that civil society – solving human needs directly, one citizen to another – is inadequate to solve big social problems. Governments must do it.  History suggests otherwise.  

In the early 19th century, the average American consumed more than seven gallons of pure alcohol per year – or about a 5-mililiter handle of whiskey every two weeks for every man, woman and child in the country. Philanthropists and civil actors got involved, and by the early 1900s, the rate of alcohol consumption had dropped by 70 percent. 

Government had nothing to do with this; indeed, in 1900, few Americans had anything at all to do with Washington. 

As part of the religious revival, the Great Awakening, in the early 1800’s, Americans came to see the need for schools. Private individuals stood up Sunday Schools, a primary education system within churches, that took the United States from the least-literate country in the world to the most literate in less than 40 years. Our university system – the finest in the world – was created almost entirely by civil society.

The hope here is that J.P. and Leah’s focused, results-driven programs can have the same level of success with divorce rates and church attendance throughout America.

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