When Newt Gingrich talks these days about his concern for the poor, I wonder if something new and good might happen-or something terrible. In his first speech as the new Speaker of the House, the conservative Republican leader said many things that, as an inner-city pastor, I was glad to hear. I, too, long for a "Monday morning" when no children have been killed over the weekend. I, too, believe the crisis we face in this country is, at root, moral and spiritual.
Perhaps it is time for a fresh conversation about what to do about the poor. We need the debate on welfare, now beginning in Congress, to open up that conversation. For too long, liberals and conservatives have been talking past each other and simply blaming the other side for the poverty and violence that have grown out of control. Meanwhile the kids in my neighborhood are being shot in their streets; just a few weeks ago a 14-year-old shot another teen-ager in the lobby of Cardozo High School, two blocks from where I live.
What can we now agree on, and where do the real issues lie? Government has indeed grown too big and too removed from ordinary citizens, including the poor. The impulse for compassion has degenerated into government structures with a more harsh than human face. Those of us who live and work in the urban war zones in this country can testify that the institutions of the welfare state have not resolved the crushing issues of poverty in America. And it is a fair criticism to conclude sadly that for too many, welfare has become not another chance but a way of life that results in dependency and despair.