A new look at reducing poverty

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.

10 thoughts on “A new look at reducing poverty

  1. Charlie Talbert

    I recommend Peter Singer’s slim and easily readable The Life You Can Save, published in 2009. The distinction it draws between the relative poverty we see firsthand in the wealthiest country in the world, and the devastating absolute poverty plaguing 1.4 billion people on the rest of the planet can be painful to read. But it’s also a hopeful book. The New York Times blurb on the cover says it well, “Part rational argument, part stinging manifesto, part handbook.” The “handbook” part is motivating.

  2. Bill Baar

    You mean poverty in the United States or the World? The worlds made great progress towards meeting the Millinneum 2010 goals and the summit in NYC working on the 2015 goals. Bono has an Op Ed in the NYTs Sept 18th on them and notes for those of use unwilling to wade through the Summit materials,

    Well, I’d direct you to the plenary sessions and panel discussions for a detailed answer…but if you’re, eh, busy this week…my view, based on the data and what I’ve seen on the ground, is that in many places it’s going better than you’d think.

    One thing I’ve found UUs loath to do is set measurable goals. You want to reduce poverty, great, decompose the UN goals down to your community. Want to create Peace, fine, (there’s been huge progress there too the past few decades.

    Corporations deal with goals and metrics. Governments do…the UN does, so why can’t the religious?

    One painful reason is metrics and goals deals with realities and those often violate theories, so when a Timothy Garton Ash suggests the best thing the wealthy nations can do is reduce trade barriers, and pull their Ag subsidies, well, that goes against way too many planks in the Democratic party platform.

    Republicans are a far less ideological party are far less bound by this stuff other than a common sense notion that less government is often better government.

  3. Bill Baar

    PS I meant, if you want to create peace, there too create some goals. I suggested that in the PeaceMaking list with zero response. That’s just not a UU frame to focus on what can be done to advance to a measurable goal.

  4. Dan

    Bill @ 2 — You write: “One thing I’ve found UUs loath to do is set measurable goals.”

    I see that problem as being endemic in the nonprofit world. Or you set measurable goals and then don’t measure progress, or forget the goal after a year.

  5. Jean

    Dan @ 4 … or the measuring (aka “assessment” in my world) becomes more important than the goal itself.

    For a pretty realistic look at rural US poverty, I recommend two films. One, a documentary: “Country Boys.” The other a feature film, “Winter’s Bone.” The former looks at two high school kids, follows them in school at home and in their lives as they stumble toward graduation. Real kids, real place, not far from where I currently live. The latter is a beautiful somber, perhaps overly violent in terms of reality but nevertheless pretty accurate portrayal of rural life in Missouri.

    To answer your central question: What can or should UUs do?

    One of the efforts UUs might make is to, in deed and practice, embrace one of the central tenets of the faith: See the good in every person (or however it’s currently phrased.) I hear a lot of my liberal colleagues mocking or scorning the traditions and habits of our students — many of our students are conservative, Christian, gun-toting (for hunting or otherwise), parochial minded people. And, yes, they are often poor and doing what poor people have to do: living in large numbers in a small space (saves rent), buying cheap food in bulk (and it’s usually high in fat, sugar, carbs, and so the poor are fat), reading little (who has time to read when you work two or three jobs?), getting their opinions pre-packaged by AM radio (guess what plays all day every day in those places of work?), and depending heavily on an intricate network of friends and family just to get by.

    If you’re not poor, you don’t live like this. If you’re not poor, you look at this way of living and see it as dysfunctional, narrow-minded, dangerous. If you’re not poor, you can afford organic coffee grown in sustainable little co-ops, you can afford fresh vegetables (organic or not), you can afford free range eggs and chickens and grass fed beef. If you’re not poor, you think hunting is just a cruel game, not a way to put food on the table. If you’re not poor, you look at the big gas guzzling late 1980s cars “those people” drive to their crappy jobs at McDonalds or WalMart and get angry at them for polluting the air around you and for supporting miserable corporate enterprises. If you’re not poor you have the luxury of disdaining the lifestyles of the poor. If you’re not poor you have the liberty to criticise, even mock, the last available socioeconomic group it is acceptable for good liberals to mock: poor white, yes you might even say this, redneck trash.

    UUs need to get their hands dirty, I think. And open their minds. And their hearts.

  6. Bob wineburg

    I did a review of Lew Daly’s book for Stanford social innovations –here it is –bob wineburg

    In “God’s Economy,” Lew Daly has written perhaps the most complete chronicle of the legal and policy foundations of former President George W. Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative. Eschewing polarizing diatribe for rigorous historical scholarship, he provides deep insights into the Catholic and Dutch Reformed philosophies that guided the initiative, and puts forth a plausible framework for future faith-based policy.

    But like the Faith-Based Initiative itself, “God’s Economy” is driven by a deep faith in the superior efficacy of religious transformative services — and there is simply very little evidence to justify that faith. There are no scientifically valid studies — none whatsoever — showing that faith-based social service providers are more effective than their secular counterparts. That includes the works of conservative scholar Stephen Monsma, which form the empirical foundation for “God’s Economy” and have been lauded as a validation of the Faith-Based Initiative.

    It is Daly’s reliance on such ideologically driven research that ultimately bankrupts “God’s Economy,” which lacks a realistic grasp of how social services actually operate in America’s 19,000 cities and 3,000 counties. It is an analysis conducted by aerial reconnaissance with little verification from facts on the ground, and as such, it is unlikely to have much of an impact on those actually delivering local faith-based services.

    Daly’s book will be of little help, for example, to public health directors looking to partner with congregational coalitions in order to better deliver flu vaccines in high-risk areas. The same goes for school board members hoping to attract volunteer tutors from congregations to help struggling kids in low-performing schools.

    “God’s Economy” will offer scant guidance for United Way leaders who, because their partner agencies cannot afford their needs for space, seek cost-effective ways to enhance their relationships with congregations in their communities. Nor will it offer answers to a local foundation that, because of bylaws forbidding funding of religious activities, is unable to financially support a faith group with a track record of helping newly released prisoners with substance abuse problems.

    That is not to say, of course, that “God’s Economy” lacks merit. Indeed, it was genuinely refreshing to consider Daly’s analysis. His is neither the typical liberal nor conservative argument about the separation of church and state. In fact, he nicely critiques both perspectives.

    And the argument Daly makes in support of his new vision of state funding of religion is certainly unique. He introduces an original and somewhat stimulating theory of change, pointing out that in Germany, The Netherlands and other European Christian democracies, there is an understanding that religious social services are for the greater good of a pluralistic society. The partnering of public funding and religious service there, Daly proposes, provides a model for what could evolve here.

    His logic is compellingly simple. The architects of the Faith-Based Initiative, whose efforts shaped the federal law and policy we have today, were strongly influenced by European Dutch Reformed and Catholic principles. The good works of European Christian democracies, he therefore reasons, just might work in America as well. Religious and public service partnerships, he even suggests, could be the way forward for American social justice, a solution neither Republican nor Democrat, providing continuity amid momentous changes.

    All social policy, however, ought to rest on some notion of reality — and it is here where Mr. Daly’s argument falters. Much of the legal scholarship on which he builds his argument has already proved to be contentious.

    Carl Esbeck’s vision for changing the way government funds sectarian social service providers, the fruits of which are seen today in the Faith-Based Initiative, was supposed to result in new, more effective ways of providing social services on the ground. That simply has not happened, a fact that Daly only somewhat acknowledges. And Stephen Monsma’s assumptions about the transformative effectiveness of faith-based social services, which figure heavily into “God’s Economy,” have been outright discredited by David Campbell’s rigorous comparison of faith-based welfare-to-work providers and their public counterparts.

    The best available social science scholarship, in fact, argues directly against Daly’s premise. Leading congregational scholar Mark Chaves has shown that from 1997 to 2007 — the heydays of the subject of “God’s Economy” — the Faith-Based Initiative had little effect on congregational and agency partnerships in communities across the country.

    My own research has found much the same. Of the 76 sectarian and secular organizations I surveyed in Delaware’s United Way network, only two received any government money for the development of the numerous partnerships they have with religious congregations. Seventy-five of the 76 — all but one — said the Faith-based Initiative had no impact whatsoever on their services.
    I have been following government-supported faith-based services since 1982, when I first saw people lining up at our local armory for commodity foods released to community agencies by the Reagan administration. And after a career of studying partnerships between congregations and government agencies, I know at least this: Be it Lew Daly’s or the Bush administration’s, any faith-based initiative that fails to ground itself in the experiences of local service providers is doomed to fail.

  7. Tom Wilson

    Dan – I’m going off in a different direction than the other responders. Your first line, “As a religious person, my primary political goal is reducing poverty” gives me pause. I doubt that your aspirations are that low. What about “as a religious person, my primary political goal is justice.” Poverty is just one aspect of injustice. Many of the important political battles of the 20th century were about various forms of injustice, not just fighting poverty. In the last 50 years, UUs would probably judge the Democrats more than the Republicans to be on the correct side of a lot of justice issues.
    A side note – with respect to the “rapid rise of those who have no affiliation with organized religion,” some of that may be from Robert Putnam’s argument that the younger generation is turning away from religion because it has become so closely identified with (polarized) politics. This seems like an opportunity for the liberal religions that could provide a religion and politics that are more aligned.
    While I think your political goal of reducing poverty is too narrow, let me address that realm. Putting on my economist hat to refer to your point four – “while capitalism has done an excellent job of raising living standards…,” I don’t think any professional economist would claim that capitalism promises to do anything more than an efficiently allocate production resources and give an efficient set of choices to purchasers (AKA “consumers”), and even then only under the watchful eye of the government (even Adam Smith warned about what happens when businessmen get together to talk.) Capitalism will never provide fairness in the initial allocation of resources (money, education, social support.) Except for economic fundamentalists, economists have always expected that to be a political decision. Similar to your quote from Lew Daly, modern post-Reagan Republicans have focused mainly on the efficiency side of things, ignoring distribution (or calling it “socialism”); and Democrats have often focused only on the distribution side, while bad-mouthing the “evil corporations” that create the money that is being redistributed. The long-run solution to poverty has to be (as you allude to in the first paragraph) addressing the underlying causes of poverty. This will vary by country but in a modern economy like the United States, I think the biggest emphasis has to be in education. This fits into the “teach a person to fish” paradigm. Anything else is palliative but not a long-run solution.

  8. Tom Wilson

    I had a very practical poverty-alleviation thought that occurred to me after I posted. When I referred to “post-Reagan Republicans”, it was because the Earned Income Tax Credit was actually a creation of the Nixon/Ford White House; and it is the largest anti-poverty program in the United States. However, there are a lot of people who do not claim the credit because they do not understand the system. My thought would be for numerate members of Unitarian congregations to team with a church in a lower-income nearby area (for example, East Palo Alto in your case, Kalihi in mine) to provide tax filing assistance to help people claim the credit.

  9. Dan

    Jean @ 5 — Nicely put, all the way around. Yes, Virginia, there is class bias in the U.S.

    Bob Wineburg @ 6 — Thanks for posting the book review! I love Stanford Social Innovation Review, and now I’ll go back through my back issues looking for your review.

    Tom @ 7 — Nope, I meant poverty. Though no one would call me a Christian (especially self-defined Christians), I am a follower of Jesus, and I think he’s right on target when he says we are called to help the poor as a top priority. If you want to stay focused on justice, that’s fine with me — although I’d remind you that those who have more money and influence get justice much more easily.

    As for the purpose behind capitalism — a couple of generations ago, at least in New England where I grew up, there was a sense that you went into business to make money but also to provide something that the world needed; i.e., there was a small but definite moral component to the business world. In the past generation, beginning in the Reagan years, capitalism was redefined to mean the amoral acquisition of money, nothing more — no longer is there any compulsion to provide a good or service that’s actually useful or needed.

    Finally, while education will be a necessary component of reducing poverty, and while I am very committed to education personally, it is not sufficient for reducing poverty. Read Jean’s comment above — she’s a professor in a college that provides education to many first-generation college students who are trying to lift themselves out of poverty — and those students need both an education and human respect, love, and dignity.

    Tom @ 8 — Nice suggestion! I’d only add that this same service should be offered by numerate UUs to those innumerate people in their congregations — although UU culture mostly requires you to hide poverty, there are plenty of UUs who are living very much on the edge financially, and yes, there are UUs who are definitely living below the poverty line.

  10. Jean

    Dan @ 9 and those students also sometimes need direct and practical help. A scholarship (Dad and I do that), a job (I have written I don’t know how many grants to hire students to work for me), a loan of a few bucks to buy lunch (yes, I do that occasionally), books (I give a lot of my books away because I can get them for free), practical financial advice (here’s how to help your credit score, no you should not go to a Check Into Cash store, yes you should get a roommate to help with the rent, etc.)

    Poverty, even in the milder form that we experience it in the U.S., impacts every part of your life. Eradicating poverty, pulling people out of it, this is, indeed the most important goal. I teach, that’s my job. I also spend a lot of time and energy working on making a difference in the conditions my students work and live in.

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