Two Half Answers to Poverty

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June 15, 2012

By Stephen V. Monsma

This article originally appeared as part of the Alternative Political Conversation Project, hosted by Harold Heie and cosponsored by the Center for Public Justice. 

Last fall the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the number of Americans living in poverty had increased to 46 million, up some 2.5 million persons in one year.  Forty-six million is not a mere number; it represents great human suffering and destroyed dreams. 

This is no small matter.  All men and women are God’s image bearers and are intended by him to live productive, contributing lives free of debilitating circumstances.  The Bible contains thousands of references to the poor and our responsibility to offer them our help.  In Matthew 25, for example, Christ teaches that we will be judged by our response to those who are naked, hungry and sick.  An active concern for the poor is not optional for the Christian.

But what concrete actions should this active concern lead us to take?  And how ought this active concern affect one’s vote this fall? 

First, we must recognize that poverty rates and a stable, healthy economy are closely related.  The four years of increasing poverty coincides with the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis and resulting recession.  During the years of a relatively strong economy, from 1993 to 2006, the poverty rate fell.  Thus, the many issues being debated this year concerning deficits, taxes, spending and economic stimulus carry large implications for poverty in the United States.  We ought to judge these debates in terms of the poor and the impact that a stronger economy will have in reducing poverty.

Even with a strong economy, however, many are still stuck in poverty.  What public policies will help—or hurt—them?  Often it seems that most Republican leaders look largely to private actions and such civil society institutions as churches and faith-based anti-poverty programs.  And often it seems that most Democratic leaders believe that government-initiated and government-run programs aimed at directly helping the poor are all that we need.  If Republicans never meet a government-run anti-poverty program they like, Democrats never meet a government-run anti-poverty program they do not like!

I suggest that both are wrong.  Or better, both are half-right in the sense that the U.S. needs both government initiatives and actions arising from individuals and civil society institutions.  The Democrats are right when they say government is necessary to stimulate the creation of needed programs, to target areas of greatest need and—with its taxation and funding powers that far exceed that of civil society organizations—to help fund anti-poverty efforts. 

But Republicans are right when they say individual effort and efforts by civil society organizations are needed.  To understand why, we need to understand why poverty persists as economic cycles come and go.  Much persistent poverty can be traced to the breakdown of the family.  In 2010, only 6 percent of families composed of a married couple were poor; 32 percent of families headed by a single woman were poor.  High divorce rates and high rates of out-of-wedlock births are a leading cause of poverty in the United States. 

This does not mean that we can blame the poor themselves for their situation and walk away with a clear conscience.  Easy divorce laws, entertainment and advertising industries that glorify sex, racism and sexism, as well as a church that has often failed to live up to its responsibilities, have all contributed to the problem.  In addition, the Bible calls us to offer help to the poor, whatever the cause of their poverty.  But this means that the challenge we as a society face in light of persistent poverty needs to involve training in basic life skills and changes in attitudes and behavior.  This is where churches and faith-based and other community-based organizations have advantages the government does not have.  If we can pair the financial resources of government with the human touch and transformative values of churches and other local organizations, we would have a powerful means to reduce poverty. 

In this election year, neither the website of President Barack Obama nor the website of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney specifically discusses poverty or the steps they believe need to be taken to address it.  This does not bode well for the 46 million Americans living in poverty.  They are not likely to loom large in this year’s presidential election.  This is a case where the voice of Christians may need to become the voice of the poor.

—Stephen V. Monsma is a Senior Research Fellow at the Henry Institute at Calvin College, Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Pepperdine University, and author of Pluralism and Freedom: Faith-Based Organizations in a Democratic Society (2012)

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.