This month has brought us yet another example of burdensome bureaucratic standards that hurt the most vulnerable members of our society. Health inspectors in Kansas City destroyed hundreds of pounds of "perfectly good barbecue" moments before it was going to be served to the city's homeless. Local community organizations collected the food from a recent sporting event and were about to distribute it to about 150 people in need when inspectors arrived, a FOX affiliate reports. They said they couldn't confirm that the brisket, ribs, and sides came from a "permitted establishment," so they poured bleach on it. "If you can think of the most magnificent barbecue spread, that's what we threw away," said an organizer. (The Week)

Last month, we heard about local government stopping a ministry group from saving the lives of opioid addicts in Elyria, Ohio. When Paul Grodell first purchased an old abandoned school building, he was "ready to transform the 62,000-square-foot eyesore into a church and a recovery home for opioid addicts—something the impoverished and heroin-infested city of Elyria, Ohio, desperately needed." It was a perfect recovery place, "a place where one could stay, free of charge, for up to a year. Somewhere for recovering addicts to learn life skills and receive job training while getting clean in the process." Everything was ready, the inspections on the building had cleared and the structure was perfectly safe. So what was the problem? 

“They eventually told us the building met state requirements for a school,” Grodell said, “but now that we changed the use of the building to a place of worship, it changed all the fire code violations.”

As recently as 2009, the school had housed more than 1,000 young children. But according to the code enforcement officer, the building was no longer “safe” by state standards, even though nothing about the building had changed. And the explanation for the last-minute new requirements was even more baffling to Grodell.

“They told us their reasoning for requiring all this work is because they taught the children fire drills a couple times a year, so the kids would know how to get out of a burning building,” Grodell said. “But I guess they think grown adults wouldn’t be able to figure it out.” (Forbes)

These two recent stories are representative of a broader, insidious move to discourage political and community involvement across the board.

We have seen state laws that prohibit neighbors from collecting money unless they file as Political Action Committees. The new IRS Form 990 arguably goes well beyond the statutory authority granted to the IRS by Congress, discouraging voluntary associations. The flourishing of certification programs in fundraising and philanthropy—a further professionalization of the field—creates additional barriers and ultimately discourages participation in civil society among average citizens. 

The work of civil society should not be just for the certified, credentialed, or well-connected. And it should not be managed by the government. Civil society properly understood stands apart from both government and business as a prudent check on both. If our aim is to strengthen civil society and help empower the most vulnerable, then we need to start taking down barriers, not creating them. 

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Photo Credit: recombiner via Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0