Speaking into the silence: Conservatives and poverty

Article Highlights

  • Today nearly one in six adults and one in four children still live in poverty.

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  • To get back on track, we need a more seasoned view of economics, combined with bold national leadership.

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  • As Nick Eberstadt argues, entitlements are "corrupting our character."

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Last week at Cleveland State University, Paul Ryan outlined in broad contours how a Romney-Ryan administration would confront poverty in America.

For followers of this blog—especially Millennials and Gen Xers who watch far too many economic conservatives tiptoe around poverty issues—his 26-minute speech is essential viewing. The speech addresses topics also covered in our current fleet of Values & Capitalism primers: subjects like Social Security, anti-poverty approaches and what conditions actually create wealth and justice.

Congressman Ryan's speech identifies two important problems. First, despite unprecedented federal anti-poverty spending, "poverty is winning." Instead of government programs creating a basic safety net (which the vast majority of Americans support), our anti-poverty programs are increasingly becoming a way of life—and one that impedes individuals and communities from flourishing. Many of us have our own firsthand examples, and "inter-generational poverty" abides.

Ryan names that on means-tested programs alone, we spend over a trillion dollars annually, and yet "in our major cities, half our kids don't graduate" from high school.  Today nearly one in six adults and one in four children still live in poverty. As compassionate citizens and, in particular, Christians who care deeply about economic stewardship, debt being passed on to future generations, and the biblical value of work, we must not idly stand by. We should also be careful not to let liberal candidates monopolize this issue.

Which brings us to the second problem Ryan identifies in his speech: Conservatives need to do a better job applying the American Dream to all strata of society. "My party has a vision for making our communities stronger," Ryan said, "but we don't always do a good job of laying out that vision."

Millennial Perspectives

Well said, Congressman. On evangelical college campuses today, students and professors have noticed. Many students attending schools that are a part of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities are slow to align themselves with the political party of their parents, not only because they hear their theology professors describing Jesus' passion for helping "the last, the least, and the lost" (as one Wheaton College professor described during a recent campus visit), but also because they don't hear a clear argument about poverty and justice from conservative leaders.

As a result, plenty of others rush in to fill the vacuum. Sojourners and other new Christian Left voices appeal directly to student hearts, launching films such as "The Line," which describes contemporary poverty with a call to solidarity. Christian college professors go on record publishing essays like "Why I’m Not Voting For Romney" (with 2900+ Facebook likes). Other Christian Democrats pen pro-Obama pieces laced with scriptural references.  

And yet, Ryan points out, even with massive federal spending at a level unseen by any of our forebears, the poor are still with us: 46 million of our fellow citizens, in fact. Supported by record levels of borrowing, costly state aid provides for basic existence but keeps far too many from reaching their full potential as free Americans.

To get back on track, we need a more seasoned view of economics, combined with bold national leadership that helps us understand our national moment—and offers a better, alternative strategy for helping the poor.

A Nation of Takers

One voice speaking clearly in the wilderness today is Nicholas Eberstadt, whose new book "A Nation of Takers" explains a fundamental transformation in U.S. federal spending in the last 50 years.

In 2010, Eberstadt shows, America's government oversaw a transfer of more than $2.2 trillion in money, goods and services to recipient men, women and children. This revenue includes income maintenance programs, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, unemployment insurance and other smaller transfer programs. 

In short, we are subsidizing much, much more than we used to—and borrowing against the future to fund unprecedented levels of wealth transfers. We are relying more and more on a bureaucratic state from which we can "take," not only in cities but in rural communities; not only for those who qualify as poor Americans but for middle and upper classes; and under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Doing so is a vast departure from the America observed in 1830 by French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville, who Ryan affirms in his speech and whose analysis Eberstadt describes in the following way:

American men and women view themselves as accountable for their own situation through their own achievements, in an environment bursting with opportunity—a novel [sort of "optimistic Puritanism"], markedly different from the prevailing Old World (or at least Continental) attitudes.

Nearly two centuries ago, this was the defining characteristic of America: Is this what Gov. Romney means in telling us he wants to "get America working again?"

While we may have historically been a fiercely independent, hard-working people who resisted public assistance, today we spend $1.2 trillion a year caring for our elderly alone. We have converted our food stamp program to EBT cards, to avoid any sense of stigma. In short, on these and other levels, Eberstadt says that entitlements are "corrupting our character."

More than Ideals

Congressman Ryan's recent speech addresses some of these themes directly, lauding the big-hearted disposition and creative incentivizing structures affirmed by his conservative mentor, Jack Kemp. Ryan advocates for more reliance on civil society, evidenced by Detroit's Cornerstone Schools and the contributions of Bob Woodson's Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which strengthens work-friendly, public-private partnerships. Evidently, these are the kinds of programs a Romney administration would support. It was a helpful start.

Nonetheless, if elected, Ryan's critique of central bureaucratic approaches to battling poverty will be even better served with lots more concrete proposals.

For American productivity to again become a reality, we must connect humane, compassionate ideals with clear-headed fiscal prudence that affirms the image of God in all persons, the dignity of work, the reality of debt and the value of personal responsibility. This is the secret our founders knew—and it is also critical to the survival and flourishing of our free enterprise system, which has the power to lift millions out of poverty.

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