A Conservative Approach to Poverty

The issue of poverty is one that we conservatives don’t spend much time addressing.  For many of us, our religious faith convicts us to volunteer our time, skills, and financial resources toward alleviating poverty in our neighborhoods.  As the pastor of my church in San Francisco often says, “We as a church are to make such a difference in this city, that if they kicked us out, they’d have to raise taxes.”  It’s a beautiful mission statement, and one I am pleased to support, but when you look at how widespread poverty is– in 2009, over 43 million Americans lived on the equivalent of $5,500 a year–you realize that the magnitude of the problem is far beyond anything we’re equipped to address.  We can never do enough to help them.

The traditional liberal solution to poverty is redistribution.  If we only take more from the greedy rich, and give it to the poor, the thinking goes, we can eradicate poverty.  But almost 50 years since LBJ first declared war on poverty, in many respects we’re worse off than when we started.   As a conservative, I am very cynical and skeptical about government social services because a) they are inefficient and fraught with waste and abuse; b) they are often ineffective, and beyond ineffective, they can be detrimental to the people they allege to help; and c) it’s hard not to see these programs as a political scheme intended to ensnare a permanent class of Democratic voters.

Realizing that there will never be a panacea for poverty –as Jesus said, “You will always have the poor among you” — it’s time to start looking for other solutions, solutions that encourage human flourishing, preserve the dignity of all persons, and empower individuals and communities to take responsibility for their own lives.  From what I’ve learned of it so far, the Family Independence Initiative (F.I.I.) appears to be a nascent approach that encompasses all these critical components.

Called the Family Independence Initiative (F.I.I.), its approach is radically different from the American social service model. Although it is still quite small — working with a few hundred families — its results are so striking that the White House has taken notice. What F.I.I. does is create a structure for families that encourages the sense of control, desire for self-determination, and mutual support that have characterized the collective rise out of poverty for countless communities in American history.

F.I.I. is not a “program” in a traditional sense. It doesn’t seek to implement changes, but to elicit them from others. It was launched as a research project by Maurice Lim Miller in Oakland in 2001…

Lim Miller had come to believe that the American social welfare system focused too much on poor people’s needs and deficits, while overlooking — and even inhibiting — their strengths. A safety net is crucial when people are in crisis, he said. But most poor families are not in free fall. They don’t need nets to catch them so much as they need springboards to jump higher….

[...]

For the middle class, resources are linked to initiative; for the poor, they are linked to problems. “We’re not advocating for this gravity defying ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps idea,’” adds Birdsong. “We’re saying: invest in families when they take initiative. We need to take what works for middle and upper income families and extend it to the whole income spectrum.”

This excerpt only conveys the guiding principles of the approach, and not the nitty-gritty details, so I encourage you to go read the entire piece (it’s not that long).  Regardless of the actual political affiliations of F.I.I.’s founders, I think they’ve stumbled upon a great thing informed by the principles that I as a Christian conservative cherish.  I’m excited to see what happens as the organization scales up.

  1. Crow

    Yeah, Diane, I was pretty demoralized reading through some of the comments too. Thankfully I know many, many people who were or are involved in charity work at every level (from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Habitat for Humanity, to military Toys for Tots programs to Boys and Girls Clubs and so on) who are conservative, and who recognize that there is real poverty in America–even if that poverty isn’t akin to famine in Somalia.

    “America is the solution” is a slogan, not an approach. From the very first, the US government was involved in trying to ensure the preconditions for social mobility. Everything from nearly giving away land in new territories to establishing the public school system in the first place was conceived of as a way to grow the country, develop its talent, and relieve poverty.

    Just because we don’t think the progressive redistributive approach to poverty relief is the correct one, doesn’t mean we don’t recognize that poverty is a real problem or that government, especially at the local level, cannot play a positive role in any way in helping to reduce it.

  2. Pilgrim
    Kimberley: I live in a former timber town turned tourist mecca, turned one of the worst areas of unemployment in Oregon and indeed in the country. Dozens of individuals/whole families made it through the very hard winter—below freezing temperatures every night for months, snow, ice—living in tents. Tents were the most needed items at homeless shelters. Sorry, contempt for the very suggestion of the existence of poor people in America doesn’t fly here.

    At least they had plentiful makings for Spotted Owl Stew. Tasty. 

    I am not seeing contempt for the very existence of poor people in America so much as irriatation with the manipulation of the data to overstate the extent of the problem and then to keep pounding the drum for progressive solutions.  There are poor people in America and LBJ and left seized responsibility to solve the problem fifty years ago.  Trillions later, the left overstates the problem, understates the social pathologies that are root causes, and, in effect, argues that the failure of their approach means that we must redouble our efforts, but only consistent with progressive principles.  Want to guess my solution for reviving the the timber industry in Oregon? 

  3. True Blue

    Are you defining “poor” in absolute or relative terms?  I doubt Jesus was referring to relative poverty (even gated communities in Palm Beach have relative poverty), so let’s assume you’re referring to absolute poverty.  Considering that 1) starvation rates are essentially zero in America,  2) I’ve never seen many (involuntarily) naked people running around, and 3) most people who are “homeless” are in inner cities and have numerous shelters available should they wish to make use of them, I’d say that poverty was eliminated in America a long time ago.  What we haven’t eliminated is squalor, which is a different problem all together. 

    Calling the poorest people in America “the poor” and comparing them to the people suffering from actual poverty in the world today or in the time of Jesus is very misleading.

  4. True Blue

    I just clicked the link to the Time story…

    Not to be insensitive, but it sure doesn’t look to me like anyone in that picture has missed many meals.  How can we call people who are able to eat themselves into obesity “poor”. 

    If you define poverty in relative terms in a country with a growing population, the number of “poor” people must (almost) inevitably increase all the time.

  5. Diane Ellis
    C
    Dammerman: Are you defining “poor” in absolute or relative terms?  I doubt Jesus was referring to relative poverty (even gated communities in Palm Beach have relative poverty), so let’s assume you’re referring to absolute poverty.  Considering that 1) starvation rates are essentially zero in America,  2) I’ve never seen many (involuntarily) naked people running around, and 3) most people who are “homeless” are in inner cities and have numerous shelters available should they wish to make use of them, I’d say that poverty was eliminated in America a long time ago.  What we haven’t eliminated is squalor, which is a different problem all together. 

    For the time being, I’m focusing on poverty in America, which I concede is “relative poverty.”  “Absolute poverty” felt in the third world where people die of hunger, exposure to the elements from lack of shelter, and of preventable diseases has different causes and therefore must be addressed differently.

    I’m open to discussing ways to address both relative poverty in America (how can we work toward improving lives of the poorest among us) as well as absolute poverty, but in this thread let’s limit it to the former.

  6. Herkybird

    I’m not quite buying this story. 42 million people is about 14% of the U.S. population.  Are you quoting a per capita figure?  Does this number include Food Stamps, Housing Assistance, Fuel Assistance, Medicaid, and any other public assistance or transfer payments or is this just net disposable cash?

    I too looked at the TIME Magazine story and the people in the picture don’t look like they come from the slums of Calcutta.

  7. Chris Johnson

     Diane, the F.I.I. story was interesting and I want to think about that.  The Time article seems dubious, at best.  I do not their numbers, for a minute and, considering the source, I won’t even bother checking.

    I have dropped my income by 90%, since 2007, by choice, because I chose to no longer support a system that is completely out of control.

    Let me tell you what would elevate my existence, all other things being equal:

    Gasoline prices and grocery prices have more than doubled during my period of self-enforced penury.  I use less electricity, but pay more for it.

    I have a chicken pen and coop, not 10 feet behind me, but I cannot even “harrass” raptors that want to eat my chickens, under the Migratory Bird Act, though I find exemptions that allow me to shoo away crows, blackbirds, and grackles.  Have you ever heard of free range chickens?  They don’t really exist, as you have to keep them completely screened away from the sky and nobody can afford to do that.

    That’s just a handfull of things that America could not make impossible that would uplift people that earn little.

  8. Diane Ellis
    C
    Herkybird: I’m not quite buying this story. 42 million people is about 14% of the U.S. population.  Are you quoting a per capita figure?  Does this number include Food Stamps, Housing Assistance, Fuel Assistance, Medicaid, and any other public assistance or transfer payments or is this just net disposable cash?

    I too looked at the TIME Magazine story and the people in the picture don’t look like they come from the slums of Calcutta. · Aug 5 at 4:13pm

    From Time:

    In 2009, 43.6 million people lived on the equivalent of less than $5,500 a year. That was up from 39.8 million Americans in 2008. The 2009 number means that more than 1 in every 7 Americans live in poverty. The actual rate was 14.3%, which is the highest that measure has been since 1994, and was up from 13.2% in 2008.

    That data is taken from page 22 of the Census Bureau report from 2009.

  9. Forrest Cox

    @Dammerman – I’m an immediate skeptic of these kinds of programs (institutionalization is the problem, de-institutionalization is the answer), but in Diane’s defense, three points:

    1. The problem here is actually one of economic development (how do we create upward income mobility for those who are “stuck” in the lower tier?) rather than combatting poverty or squalor – America has 3rd world problems aplenty, in pockets of course, and while I’m in favor of dramatically rationalizing our welfare programs (as in, negative income tax dramatic) anything that puts focus on families as a unit as opposed to increased reliance on government will almost definitionally be an improvement in my book, even if by accident.

    2. I’d encourage you to visit the website of the org – there are elements to like there.
    3. “Poor” is somewhat ambiguous and relative, and even more-so when one thinks in terms of the waistline.  Despite recent factor input inflation, we have made high-calorie, high fat, high sugar diets accessible to the lowest income earners (a great achievement, actually).  This tells us almost nothing about how easy it is for those people to attain upward mobility in terms of relative income.
  10. True Blue

    Fair enough, thanks for the response.  I don’t think that the Time’s article is a very useful place to start since the statistics in the article are clearly misleading.  Food stamps alone can be worth well over $2,000 a year per person.  Combining that with welfare payments, access to shelters, free medical care in emergency rooms, soup kitchens, clothing drives, there probably isn’t a single person in America who has to live on “$5,500″ a year.   

  11. Forrest Cox
    Diane Ellis, Ed. That data is taken from page 22 of the Census Bureau report from 2009.

    What ages are we talking about here?

  12. Diane Ellis
    C
    Dammerman: Fair enough, thanks for the response.  I don’t think that the Time’s article is a very useful place to start since the statistics in the article are clearly misleading.  Food stamps alone can be worth well over $2,000 a year per person.  Combining that with welfare payments, access to shelters, free medical care in emergency rooms, soup kitchens, clothing drives, there probably isn’t a single person in America who has to live on “$5,500″ a year.    · Aug 5 at 4:24pm

    I’m sorry that I distracted readers from the main point, which is how we can encourage upward mobility among those who feel stuck at the bottom.  The definition of the lower rung isn’t of too much importance in this conversation, but discussing how to export the  principles and values that have helped us achieve our individual successes may be fruitful.

  13. Diane Ellis
    C
    Forrest Cox

    Diane Ellis, Ed. That data is taken from page 22 of the Census Bureau report from 2009.

    What ages are we talking about here? · Aug 5 at 4:26pm

    I think the data is all inclusive: men, women, and children of all ages.  That’s the only way the figure could conceivably be that high.

    Of course, when talking about how to support upward mobility, we focus on those of working age.

  14. True Blue

     @Forrest Cox

    I agree with your points.  Yes, “the poor” can be a very ambiguous term.  I think that the very ambiguity of the term is useful to those who wish to expand the reach of government. 

    My main point is that when Jesus was talking about the “poor,” he was not referring to relative poverty in one of the wealthiest nations in the history of the world. 

    When we confuse poverty with squalor (or lack of economic mobility or whatever), we risk diluting the Christian call to charity. 

  15. Forrest Cox
    Diane Ellis, Ed. For the time being, I’m focusing on poverty in America, which I concede is “relative poverty.”  “Absolute poverty” felt in the third world where people die of hunger, exposure to the elements from lack of shelter, and of preventable diseases has different causes and therefore must be addressed differently.

    I’m open to discussing ways to address both relative poverty in America (how can we work toward improving lives of the poorest among us) as well as absolute poverty, but in this thread let’s limit it to the former.

    I’m not convinced that the families in question (e.g. those that participated in FII) constitute “the poorest among us,” but I do think you’re asking the right question.  

    What I like about the program is that it seems to remove many of the agendas you get with much of both government (e.g. let’s make you a ward or a bureaucrat-in-training) and private (esp. religious institutions) outreach.  It’s focused on economics and on the impact of developing collaborative networks between nested social units.

    What I don’t like is that it’s a government program.

  16. Jimmy Carter

    “..solutions that encourage human flourishing, preserve the dignity of all persons, and empower individuals and communities to take responsibility for their own lives.”

    Right. Our Founders called that solution America.

  17. Forrest Cox
    I think the data is all inclusive: men, women, and children of all ages.  That’s the only way the figure could conceivably be that high.

    I’m not so surprised by the absolute number – 35+% of Alabama’s population is on food-stamps, for instance – but rather with the $5,500 figure.  But it makes sense given the size and constitution of the sample.

  18. Forrest Cox
    Jimmy Carter: Right. Our Founders called that solution America.

    QOTD

  19. Demaratus
    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    I’m sorry that I distracted readers from the main point, which is how we can encourage upward mobility among those who feel stuck at the bottom.  The definition of the lower rung isn’t of too much importance in this conversation, but discussing how to export the  principles and values that have helped us achieve our individual successes may be fruitful. · Aug 5 at 4:30pm

    I think it does matter, though, Diane: a lot of us believe, and some here have argued, that if you define poverty as real crushing, life-destroying poverty, it virtually doesn’t exist in America, and to the extent it does exist it is emminently solvable by private charity alone.  Why bother discussing this in a US context if there is no problem to solve? I enjoy intellectual conversations as much as the next guy, but if I have to talk practical politics like this, than I only want to discuss real problems.  The real problem in America is that our “poor” aren’t really poor, and that we’re wasting trillions and dampening our growth to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.
  20. Scott R

     For some perspective, it’s important to remember that our generation, here in America, has arrived at the point at which the poorest among us are also the most likely to be obese (and they have TV, cell phones, and more square footage of living space per person than the middle class of a half century ago).

    Our poverty is more of self-respect and, yes, values, than it is material wealth. For this we have to blame not conservatism, but the “soft bigotry” of liberalism, which, for example, has judged inner-city families to be incapable of slapping together a PB&J for their kids in the morning and so has relieved them of that basic responsibilty of adulthood (providing breakfast) by pushing it onto our schools.

    The best way to mitigate poverty is to treat the poor as the adults they are. As it is, we’ve subsidized irresponsibilty (and therefore gotten more of it) for so long that it’s become cultural, at which point it’s a son-of-a-gun to turn around.

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