As a religious person, my primary political goal is reducing poverty. With that as my main criterion for judging U.S. political parties, I generally consider both the Democratic party and the Republican party failures. While Democrats are somewhat willing to provide expensive programs to alleviate poverty, these days they seem unwilling to address the basic structural problems within the United States that lead to poverty. While many individual Republicans are very devoted to reducing poverty, not least because many Republicans are devoted Christians for whom reducing poverty is a requirement of their religion, as a whole the party still seems mired in trickle-down economics, which is really a form of Social Darwinism: let the rich thrive, and the poor may eat the leavings from their tables.
Given that both Democrats and Republicans pay at least lip service to the goal of reducing poverty, why have they both been so ineffectual on this issue? Probably because both parties have gotten important things wrong. Ron Sider, in a review of Lew Daly’s new book God’s Economy: Faith-Based Initiatives and the Caring State in the Christian Century magazine, says this about George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative, which has also been embraced by Barack Obama:
Bush was right in rejecting the dominant Reagan-Republican push to abandon governmental responsibility to alleviate poverty. (Liberal critics who said that government abdication of responsibility was the real goal [of Bush’s initiative] were wrong.) Bush was also right to embrace a much wider role for nongovernmental, including religious, organizations in the delivery of government-funded anti-poverty programs. (Liberal critics who charged that is was discriminatory to protect the freedom of religious organizations, especially their freedom to hire staff who share their faith commitments, were wrong.) Tragically, Bush failed to provide enough funding to combat poverty and failed to how an unrestrained market economy threatens families and communities just as much as an all-powerful government does. (Liberal critics were on target here.)
This is an interesting argument, and I’m going to have to read Daly’s book. Perhaps there is a way to make Bush’s and Obama’s faith-based initiative work. However, I remain skeptical of the faith-based initiative for at least four reasons. First, the rapid rise of those who have no affiliation with organized religion seems to augur a decline in the size and vigor of organized religion. Second, sociologist Mark Chaves has shown that most congregations are not good at delivering social services. Third, rapid changes in the nonprofit sector such as the rise of social entrepreneurship are blurring the distinction between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors — think of the rise of microcredit institutions, which were begun to reduce poverty — thus introducing new ways for nonprofit anti-poverty programs to fund themselves. Fourth, while capitalism has done an excellent job of raising standards of living in many places, it looks to me as though capitalism has reached the limit of what it can do to reduce poverty.
Of course, bringing this subject up on a blog devoted to Unitarian Universalism is a little bit quixotic. Unitarian Universalists have a long history of mostly ignoring poverty, except to partially fund the occasional soup kitchen or homeless shelter. And for most Unitarian Universalists, the Democratic party represents an adequate expression of their religious convictions in the political arena. If you choose to comment on this post, please do try to stay away from conventional partisan politics; and though it seems a lot to hope for, I would really value serious reflection on how Unitarian Universalists might address the problem of poverty from within our unique religious perspective.