We need to find different ways to talk about poverty.
It's easy to say that community groups are more effective than government in delivering services to help our poor neighbours. But this can't mean that politicians can ignore the plight of the poor.
For those on the conservative side of the spectrum, the political dimensions of poverty have not always been handled well. The usual argument is that a rising tide of economic growth will lift all boats. Government intervention to aid those at the bottom of the income scale is dismissed as ineffective, replaced by a "tough love" approach which emphasizes personal responsibility. Some exceptions are made for those who have physical or other obvious disabilities, but the general approach is that poverty is a natural consequence of laziness and irresponsibility. Government's role is minimal and where help is needed, local groups are better equipped to deal with the problem.
And, indeed, I've just returned from a discussion in Washington where examples were plentiful of local initiatives making real differences. I was particularly struck that some organizations, aiming to help prisoners re-enter the workforce, understood very well the linkage between government policy and community initiative. In a context where one in thirteen Americans are in legal difficulty (incarcerated, on probation, or on parole) and where the link between crime and poverty is so strong, this full-orbed understanding is making a difference.
Bob Woodson spoke of systematically analyzing the economic advantage of some of the skills required to succeed at crime, and identifying entrepreneurial ways to focus those skills to socially constructive ends. Who better to provide security on our transit systems or provide delivery services in the sketchier parts of our cities than those who know those parts best? Connecting those wise in the ways of the streets to jobs where those skills are a necessary part of the package is proving to be successful.
Bert Smith of the Prisoner Entrepreneurship Program described a program of mentoring prisoners prior to their release to develop business plans, providing "shark tank" opportunities for them to pitch their proposals, and connecting them with a network of entrepreneurs to help them to start these new businesses. Partnering with Baylor University has credentialed this knowledge and again, the program seems to be having great impact. Common to these programs is identifying and cultivating the potential of those who are in difficulty, believing in the power of redemption and hope. Almost always, these programs provided much more than technical processes and training—they came in a context of faith and character development, which proved critical to program success.
Each of these stories came with examples of political barriers that complicated their attempts. Much of it was blanket regulation (e.g. policies not allowing reapplication for employment credentials or drivers licence until X time out of prison, making it impossible to make efficient transitions from prison to ordinary life). Some of the complications were tax structures in which the focus was on income rather than work, resulting in negative financial incentives for working once income levels passed certain thresholds. All of these seemed utterly fixable and one would expect that if the debate ever were able to transcend the partisan divide regarding poverty, a consensus on many of these points would be possible from across the spectrum.
But this cooperation doesn't happen.
A fundamental ideological divide dominates both sides of the spectrum. Sadly, the poor have become a political football, and kicking them for partisan points is too common.
The left's approach is to promise new programs (often in order to earn votes). Since the beneficiaries of these programs don't often vote in numbers that warrant the attention, the real vote market comes those whose guilt can be cultivated. It's as much about helping those who are not poor feel better, delegating their compassion through government programs. Combine the vote-getting realities with an ideological insistence on orthodox secularism (meaning any programs that contain faith or character components are suspect, regardless of the results) and we end up with a bureaucratic infrastructure that delivers far less than its promises, yet is defended not based on the results but rather on the good intentions.
The right's approach, however, doesn't really claim the moral high ground either. Thinking that numbers are at the heart of the problem, the solutions often seem to be cutting rather than investing. There is plenty of inefficiency to identify and blame can be easily assigned. Redemption doesn't always neatly fit within a meritocratic paradigm and autopsies on policy failures make for easier policy than do creative ways of investing in the seeds of growth. As one participant this week, identifying herself as a conservative, noted, "It is not as if we are really known by our genuine care for the poor."
I acknowledge that my "pox on both your houses" critique is easy and not always helpful. The real ideological differences between right and left require a democratic determination of which approach has the upper public policy hand. However, while her audience was composed of primirily those on one side of the spectrum, I suspect that the plea issued by conference organizer Jennifer Marshall in her opening remarks is applicable to all: "It is not just others that need to change. We need to change too." We need to find different ways to talk about poverty.