The Cost of Regulating Charity

FOR 110 years, the Salvation Army has been offering temporary shelter and support to homeless and troubled people across the country. In exchange for ``three hots and a cot,'' plus about $20 a week, recipients perform such tasks as unloading discarded furniture and working in kitchens at the social-service centers the organization operates. Now the Department of Labor has decided that arrangement is unfair. It has ordered the group to pay its beneficiaries the federal minimum wage - $3.80 an hour. The Labor Department notes that other rehabilitative organizations, among them Goodwill Industries Inc., have long done so.

Salvation Army officials are contesting the order on grounds they are helping, not employing, the destitute. They claim the requirement could doom the rehabilitation programs. Democratic Rep. Marge Roukema of New Jersey has taken up their cause, asking the Labor Department to grant the charity an exemption from minimum-wage laws. ``There are no winners in this scenario,'' she wrote to Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole. ``In the end, the Salvation Army will suffer, the budgets of the cities and states will suffer, and, most important, those who will be denied help will suffer.''

Similarly, in New York City, bureaucratic regulations have apparently closed another door to people in need. Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity abandoned plans to convert two vacant tenements in the Bronx into a shelter for the homeless because the mayor's office insisted that the buildings include elevators for the disabled. The nuns considered the $50,000 expenditure a luxury. Anyone unable to negotiate the stairs, they explained, would be carried, ``just like they do in Calcutta.''

Most of the time, government regulations play a necessary role in promoting fairness and serving the common good. But if, on occasion, certain regulations thwart the best efforts of nonprofit groups operating on shoestring budgets, there should be exceptions to enable them to do their work. During the past decade, the federal government has increasingly shifted responsibility for social services to the private sector. It would be an unintended irony and a hollow victory if those finding a marginal membership in society were denied, on finicky legal grounds, their right to be useful and to be sustained with dignity.

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