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.