Poverty Is Not a Left-Wing Issue

In the Faith Works book tour this spring, perhaps the greatest surprise and satisfaction came in many interviews on "Christian radio." The talk shows on National Public Radio stations, network affiliates, and various community radio outlets were more typical for me. But I was greatly encouraged by the interest from local and national Christian radio, and even more heartened by the response.

What I found on conservative Christian radio shows was a deepening concern for people who are poor, on the part of both interviewers and callers. Most significant was the breaking out of old ideological categories. In an interview on the Salem Network (the largest chain of Christian radio stations in the country), the host said to me and to his audience, "You know, poverty is not a left-wing issue; it’s a Christian issue, and it’s time for us all to recognize that." Another show’s host acknowledged, "You know, Jim, most of us wouldn’t have had anything to do with you just a few years ago. We thought talking about poverty was left wing. But many of us are coming around and want to be with you now." Comment after comment and caller after caller expressed similar views.

Christian radio is changing; but maybe I am, too. I now believe that if poverty is to be overcome, it will take the insights and energies of both conservatives and liberals. As long as poverty fighting is seen as merely a left-wing issue, we will never succeed. And it’s not just a matter of perception, it’s also a question of content.

Faith Works tries to lay out a new and balanced vision for how poverty might be overcome. The book does not just rehash old ideas (nor repeat old stories from Sojourners); rather it speaks of a comprehensive plan for change, involving every sector of society—not just the government, nor just the "market," nor just churches and charities, as the various competing ideological options often suggest. The stories in Faith Works of the most successful and inspiring projects around the country are as new as the approach they suggest.

And those stories all suggest that it will take the best insights and efforts from both conservatives and liberals if we are going to really make a difference in people’s lives. Liberals must no longer be content to just "service" poverty instead of overcoming it; and conservatives must stop merely blaming poor people for their poverty, instead of taking some responsibility themselves. Real solutions to poverty will require both liberals and conservatives to take new responsibility and lead us all to new approaches that transcend the old political options of Left and Right.

CONSERVATIVES have been right in saying that the hold of poverty over people’s lives will not broken until we confront the problem of broken families. Family breakdown is a cause of poverty, and it further traps single parents and their kids in a continuing cycle of impoverishment, even when other social and economic factors are involved. My neighborhood has 80 percent single-parent families. In a situation of such massive family breakdown, no mere economic initiatives to overcome poverty can possibly succeed unless we are simultaneously reweaving the web of family and community—a cultural solution. To promote and support marriage and stable two-parent families is an anti-poverty measure, as virtually all the social data shows. To ridicule traditional family patterns as essentially bourgeois or patriarchal, as too many left-wing intellectuals have done, has devastating consequences for poor people. Sure, many liberals have good family values, but many are often hesitant to talk about them, fearing they will sound like the Religious Right.

Faith Works tells stories from the Sojourners Neighborhood Center, and similar programs around the country, where personal motivation and responsibility are stressed to young people at risk. Bad personal and moral choices do land people in poverty or keep them there. Out in the suburbs, affluence buffers the many bad choices kids make, giving them second, third, and many more chances. But to an inner-city kid living in a poor and violent neighborhood, a bad choice could cost you your life. Sexual promiscuity is often covered over by money and lots of abortions in wealthy communities. But in poor neighborhoods, kids having kids is killing people’s chances of ever escaping poverty. One can be committed to the conservative bedrock values of personal and moral responsibility, marriage, and family values without resorting to the kind of mean-spirited scapegoating of women, single mothers, and gays and lesbians that some on the Religious Right have engaged in. Sound conservative values should not be simply conceded to the political right wing.

But liberals are right in saying that personal behavior is not the only issue in poverty—not by a long shot. Structural issues are also involved, as the Bible itself points out in holding kings and rulers, employers, landlords, and judges responsible for injustice. Good family values don’t insure you of a job that pays a living family wage. Nor do they allow you to ever become a homeowner, as my next door neighbor, Thelma, found out in a story I tell in the book. Overcoming poverty also takes some responsibility on the part of private business to see the common good and not just the bottom line; it entails different corporate and banking policies and effective government action where the market has failed to address fundamental issues of fairness and justice.

In Denver, I recently learned that you have to work 97 hours per week at minimum wage in order to find any sort of affordable housing. It will take more than good personal motivation and responsibility to make enough affordable housing available to those working families who have no place to live; it will take focused government action to ensure a sufficient stock of available housing. It may also take changed planning and zoning laws, which keep low and moderate income housing out of many wealthy areas. And how will marriage and good moral choices provide your family the health care it needs? Can we include 44 million Americans into the health care system without some government intervention? I doubt it.

BOTH CONSERVATIVES and liberals are coming to see the crucial leadership role of non-governmental organizations, in the so-called "civil society," for resolving the toughest issues of poverty. The role of faith-based organizations, in particular, is being more and more widely viewed as crucial, and Faith Works is full of the stories and reasons why. But anybody who is serious about the problems of poverty knows that the resources to solve the problem simply don’t exist sufficiently in the civil society. Government, on all levels, must be involved. How, when, and where is the most important question now. The issues will not be defined as big versus small government but, rather, how government can be effective in helping to mobilize new multisector partnerships and target its resources in the most strategic ways. Rather than creating new government programs for every problem, government must see what’s already working and then figure out how to "scale up" those solutions. And most of our values suggest that a good society should provide a "safety net" for those who really need it, enabling them to live in dignity and security.

There is also growing agreement across the political spectrum that racism is still very real, and that we won’t succeed in overcoming poverty without also dismantling the structures of racial prejudice that still work to maintain economic injustice. Just recently, the Justice Department and the FBI released a devastating study, demonstrating the stark differences in arrests, convictions, and sentencing between white suspects and black and Latino suspects—for the same crimes and even in the same cities and neighborhoods. In the criminal justice system, as in many other social systems in America, race still makes a real difference in how people are treated. And this is now, in the year 2000, and not just 20, 50, or 100 years ago. It is crucial that both conservatives and liberals work to overcome the continuing impact of race as a cause of poverty.

That kind of approach is neither Left nor Right, in the traditional ways. The truth is that overcoming poverty will take both liberals and conservatives and those who are neither. It will take all of our best values and insights, then require us to find solutions that might move each of us to new places of commitment and responsibility. And that’s what would make the greatest difference of all.

JIM WALLIS is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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