What to Do About the Poor

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.

MY POLITICAL in-volvement began with the civil rights movement. I will not retreat one inch from the social conscience that grew out of the freedom movement and infused the American spirit with a new sense of political morality. But that conscience has long since atrophied. Somehow, the liberal solution lost its moral foundations and political imagination and became merely identified with huge, distant, impersonal bureaucracies concerned more with control than caring, often entrapping the poor instead of empowering them.These are among the old solutions that the voters rejected in November.

In voting against the old solutions to poverty, it is by no means clear that the American people were endorsing a social revolution against the poor. We're now seeing a dangerous and mean-spirited scapegoating of the poor, an "us and them" politics sounded in many places during this fall's election campaign and since. The social agenda of abandonment now being touted in many Republican circles is no alternative to failed welfare policies.

Since the election, the conservative victors have focused much of their attention on government entitlements that affect the poor-even though such programs make up a much smaller part of the budget than many other government expenditures, including a whole range of middle-class and corporate subsidies. Why? Could it be that the poor, with little voice or political clout, are an easy target?

It's not just the welfare system that's being demonized-it's those who are on welfare. Fathers who become delinquent and mothers who become dependent will feel the scorn of middle America, but it is the children of the poor who suffer most from being cut off from the safety net. Personal responsibility is a noble and necessary virtue, but racism is still very real in America, and so is economic oppression.

PRIVATIZING AND localizing the response to poverty sounds like a good idea to many, but it is already overstretched churches and community groups that will most feel the burden they cannot possibly carry alone. All across the country, creative and energetic groups and programs demonstrate real solutions to our seemingly intractable problems. Many are church-related and most of the successful ones combine an approach that is value-centered, community-based, and committed to a spiritual vision of racial and economic justice. Most all of them are more personal, compassionate, and effective-and far less costly-than comparable government programs. But almost all of these efforts are desperately struggling for financial survival.

That is the disconnect. If the rhetoric of moving the war on poverty to local religious and non-profit organizations is put forward without the resources to do the job, the conservative talk is merely cynical and cruel-just another unfunded mandate. Is the populist Republican rhetoric real, or is it just code language for abandoning the poor? We shall see.

It is indeed time to re-examine old solutions that control the poor instead of empowering them-but we must not abandon the search for new ones. Those will most likely be community-based and value-centered, and oriented more toward the real transformation of poverty than the maintenance of it. This is not a job for the public or private sector alone; it will take a long-term commitment on the part of all of us, and will require new partnerships and new configurations of people, institutions, and resources.

The wall between "public" and "private" solutions must come down in favor of new initiatives that include everyone. Of course government can't do everything and shouldn't try, but political leadership is critical in catalyzing concern, providing incentives for action, mobilizing various social sectors, and gathering the financial energy.

Many of us in the religious community are ready to join with anyone in a genuine search for new solutions rooted in moral values and social responsibility. Many of our local congregations are already taking the lead in that task. But the people Jesus told us especially to remember as "the least of these" must neither be scapegoated nor forgotten. To abandon the poor or blame them for their own oppression, while affirming the affluent in their complacency, would be a moral and religious failure. If the leaders of the new Republican majority go down that road, echoes of the prophets Amos and Jeremiah will follow their every step.

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