New workhouses of the nun from hell

Sister Connie of Chicago runs an iron regime for the homeless. British anti-welfarists are impressed
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American liberals see her as the nun from hell: Sister Connie Driscoll advocates the disembowelling of the welfare system, and she looks the part. She is short, thick set, with cropped grey hair and a black patch over one eye: a pirate among traditional do-gooders.

She was brought over to London this week by the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs for a conference on dismantling the welfare state. They could hardly have found a better advocate for their cause. She believes welfare hand-outs create an underclass of poverty, sap initiative and fuel dependence and indigence. She would cut every cent of it and throw the poor upon the mercy of the parish. She would leave it to charities, churches and communities to care for them in whatever way they saw fit. The state would contribute nothing.

She was the original author of a scheme introduced last year in Wisconsin whereby mothers under 18 are denied any welfare money. They are forced to live at home with their families and if they have none, they are fostered out to live with other families. She claims the birth rate among young mothers is already dropping.

It is easy to see why the band of Jeremys and Jeremiahs, camp followers of the Portillo/Redwood/Lilley tendency, grow moist in the palms and breathless with excitement at this tough message. But unlike they who would pass by on the other side if accosted by a poor person, Sister Connie deserves our attention, because she devotes her life to the poor.

For the past 12 years she has run a hostel down among the toughest housing projects in Chicago. The St Martin de Porres House of Hope takes in homeless mothers and children. It is surrounded by gangs with AK47s who frequently shoot out the windows by accident in the course of their private warfare. Tides of drugs, violence and prostitution wash up against her doors.

She takes in homeless mothers sent through the courts or other agencies, many of whom risk having their children removed; 85 per cent of them are drug addicts. She claims that after an average stay of seven months, 95 per cent are cured for life, a remarkable success rate. Her regime of iron starts at 6am when they all have to get up to clean out the place, do their chores and wash their children before breakfast. They are allowed out only on a pass, no one gets a pass for more than three hours, everyone must be in by 7.30pm and no men can visit.

The home is paid for entirely by private, church and charitable donations. If Sister Connie had her way, none of the mothers would be drawing their $287 a month from the government for their first child. "It's a horribly immoral system. They can get an extra $500 a month if they can prove they are substance abusers. If they can get their kids to behave badly at school, they get $500 to buy extra help because their child is `developmentally disabled', which would all disappear up their nose. I don't allow them to claim these payments."

She says women are queuing to get on to her programme, though many are there under some duress. She says virtually all who stay end up with qualifications, work and a home. In Chicago, as the prime mover in Mayor Daley's Homeless Task Force, she sweeps the poor off the streets, the beggars out of the airport, pulls down the shanty towns and forces the homeless into hostels they often don't choose to live in. So far, 9,486 mothers and children have passed through her doors, and four more Houses of Hope are due to open. Her mothers, she says, become community leaders and help to clean up the neighbourhood.

From this impressive record she makes the huge assertion that all welfare payments are always wrong and that local charity will always do the job better. It is an appealing idea, partly because any simple solution to the intricate and circular problems of poverty looks tempting. She would withdraw all payments, have charities take in women and children and leave men to fend for themselves. She tells tales of men her Carmelite brothers have tried to help, taking them by van to a factory to work every night, but after two weeks they all dropped out, preferring welfare. The punchy anecdote rather than the statistic is her style.

Perhaps if the world were peopled by women like her, prepared to give their lives to seizing hold of the helpless and shaking some sense into them, then it could all be done by charity. It takes tenacious fund-raising, utter devotion and an unquestioning self-confidence. But one Mother Teresa or Sister Connie does not make a comprehensive welfare safety net. Such people are, by definition, rare.

She says her alternative to welfare would have to be introduced gradually. There would need to be good child care. The genuinely disabled would still receive state assistance. There would be huge tax rebates on all donations to encourage giving on such a colossal scale. She is contemptuous of the Newt Gingrich idea of seizing children from welfare mothers and thrusting them into orphanages and, unlike Mother Teresa, she is in favour of contraception, though she preaches virtue.

Tough though she is, underneath her harsh scheme lies a touching faith in human nature, a trust in the strength of modern urban communities and belief in the goodwill of international corporations. Even if she was right about some of it, donors might be choosy. They might prefer children to Aids sufferers, old folk to young offenders, the chronically sick to drug addicts. She brushes aside such obstacles, declaring that where there is need, the community will provide. But what community? Would this help to recreate one, or simply expose its non-existence?

What she lacks is a sense of history. We have been here before and it didn't work. The state stepped in reluctantly only because charity failed. Her own house may succeed for young drug-addicted mothers desperate to retrieve their children. But workhouses failed before, because keeping people in any kind of institution is considerably more expensive than giving them social security. That is why our own government rapidly backed off doing anything much about young single mothers after outbursts at the 1993 Conservative party conference.

If her system did work, it would soon become institutional and professional, everything she hates about state welfare. She rightly points out how much government money intended for the poor is filtered into the pockets of the hierarchies of professionals who help them. An outfit like hers, run on a shoestring, paying lower wages, wouldn't survive long. Charities would become big businesses delivering mass services, soon devoid of all those charitable qualities she admires.

Her universal remedy looks dangerous and eccentric, but it doesn't mean she is entirely wrong. We all know that social security can sap initiative, and most of us know people who have defrauded it. It is not a perfect system, and it needs constant adjustment and reform. However, Sister Connie's message comes as welcome ammunition to some of the more fanatical British anti-welfarists. From the gleam in their eye, it seems to be another dossier they plan to carry off into the wilderness to forge a new non- Majorite agenda after losing the next election.