In a First Things editorial entitled “What Should We Do About the Poor?”, the editors discuss alternatives to addressing poverty. Though this essay is about twenty years old, it still offers sage advice for assisting the genuinely “disadvantaged poor.” The editors mention the traditional “conservative” approach—namely, to stop giving out money in order that the poor will become more responsible for themselves and less dependent on others. To the ears of many, this approach can sound calloused and lacking in compassion. As we’ll see, this has much to commend it, but we must do more than this.
By contrast, the “liberal” approach tends to measure compassion by dollars directed toward social programs. While we can commend the desire to assist the poor, the method has proven to be wasteful and deleterious. As far back as 1979, the noted black economist, Walter Williams, wrote in Newsweek that the government’s $250 billion spent that year on helping the “poor” was simply wasteful and mismanaged. If it were just distributed directly (and equally) to the “poor,” each of them would have received an astonishing annual payment of $34,000. A huge proportion of this welfare money never reaches the recipients since bureaucratic agencies siphon off most of it before it gets to them. Besides wastefulness, this approach typically breeds long-term dependency—turning safety nets into hammocks—as well as creating a deepened and regularly reinforced sense of entitlement.
Now, there is much to commend the “conservative” approach. This is borne out by the statistics. Taking persons off the government dole and trying to move them toward becoming productive contributors to society has proven effective. In fact, ten years after Bill Clinton worked with a majority Republican Congress to pass welfare reform legislation in 1996 (albeit reluctantly, you may remember), he wrote in the New York Times about the very positive results:
In the past decade, welfare rolls have dropped substantially, from 12.2 million in 1996 to 4.5 million today [in 2006]. At the same time, caseloads declined by 54 percent. Sixty percent of mothers who left welfare found work, far surpassing predictions of experts. Through the Welfare to Work Partnership, which my administration started to speed the transition to employment, more than 20,000 businesses hired 1.1 million former welfare recipients. Welfare reform has proved a great success, and I am grateful to the Democrats and Republicans who had the courage to work together to take bold action.
Unfortunately, despite these past gains, the pendulum has now heavily swung back toward government dependence. The number of those receiving government assistance as of May 2012 is 49.1%–from 44% in 2008.
Commenting on economic and social concerns in the black community, Walter Williams states that racial discrimination or a “legacy of slavery” doesn’t adequately account for these problems. (Another black economist Thomas Sowell has made similar observations.) In his Race and Economics, Williams documents the following: In 1925, 85 percent of black households in New York City were two-parent households. This was also true of black households in Philadelphia in1880—though at 75 percent. In fact, in the late 1800s, 75.2 percent of black households nationwide were comprised of two parents and children—and 73.1 percent for native whites. By contrast, two-parent households are at 30 percent in the black community.
While the First Things editors would agree that the government should not support the able-bodied who can find work but do not, they urge going beyond this to actually empowering the disadvantaged poor. This empowerment can come through several important avenues. First, empowerment comes through safety and crime-reduction in poor neighborhoods. For example, citizens can volunteer to patrol unsafe neighborhoods in cooperation with local law enforcement authorities. Also, since many who are poor have a failing or non-existent support structure at home, concerned citizens can serve as role models and friends through community and religious organizations (e.g., Christian churches, Big Brothers/Sisters, Alcoholics Anonymous, Salvation Army, Prison Fellowship, Catholic Charities). In fact, before government welfare programs formally came into existence, America’s churches and volunteer/charitable organizations served to assist and empower the poor: they urged family involvement to help care for their own flesh and blood; they encouraged personal responsibility and accountability; they insisted on labor for food—unlike many of our soup kitchens today! Marvin Olasky’s book The Tragedy of American Compassion tells of this seemingly lost chapter of our nation’s history.
Another means of empowerment is education. Unfortunately, public education has failed the poor (see the film Waiting for Superman). Education has been taken away from parents and local communities and placed into the hands of teachers’ unions and bureaucrats. To turn the tide, state or county officials in conjunction with parents and teachers should make available viable educational opportunities to help children keep out of dead-end, failing schools. One important way to do this is through injecting some competition into the educational system, granting tax vouchers for less-fortunate parents who can then send their children to schools that are actually performing well. Despite the rhetoric of many Washington politicians to support public schools unconditionally, these typically send their own children to private schools, and even public school teachers in places like Chicago are sending their own children to private schools “in droves.”
Another factor to add is the powerful redemptive uplift that spiritual regeneration/conversion to Christ can bring. Olasky mentions this in his Tragedy of America Compassion. He notes that these volunteer charities and churches knew that the only answer to the habits and mindsets of some people was God and his grace. They could be transformed from being idle and irresponsible into being frugal, industrious, and self-controlled. The gospel has power to transform attitudes and behavior, including one’s work ethic.
These are some practical ways in which the poor can be holistically empowered, and the church should once again take its place and fully engage genuine poverty in our midst—and avoid failed “solutions” that continue to plague our society.
The apostle Paul knew that there were ways to help the poor—and not to help the poor. He wrote to the Thessalonians, “For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either” (2 Thes. 3:10). Earlier he wrote to them, “For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (1 Thes. 2:9). Paul serves as both a model of hard work and economic independence from others, and he addresses the problem of the able-bodied who refuse to work. These are not to be confused with the “unfortunate poor” who, through no fault or irresponsibility of their own, find themselves in dire economic straits. In the Proverbs and elsewhere, Scripture repeatedly rebukes slothfulness and promotes hard work, planning for known future needs, and industriousness. But the poverty that comes from slothfulness is different matter from the poverty of the genuinely needy—orphans and widows in distress (Jam. 1:27).
My next blog will highlight one further means of helping the poor—one that has actually brought millions out of poverty for more than two hundred years
Richard John Neuhaus, “What Should We Do About the Poor?” First Things (April 1992). Available at: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/01/001-editorial-what-should-we-do-about-the-poor-12
 Walter Williams, “Commentary,” Newsweek (Sept. 24 1979), 57-59.
 Bill Clinton, “How We Ended Welfare, Together,” New York Times (August 22, 2006). Available at URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/22/opinion/22clinton.html?_r=0
 Walter Williams, Race and Economics (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution, 2011).
 Olasky’s book is published by Crossway Books (1992).
 Matt Vespa, “Many Chicago teachers send kids to private schools” Washington Times (Sept. 15, 2012). Available at: http://times247.com/articles/chicago-teachers-send-their-kids-elsewhere-in-droves