A half century into the War on Poverty, liberals can hardly declare victory. But they can claim the dominant anti-poverty narrative: Americans seldom look to conservatives for answers to the problems of poverty.
That’s not to say we don’t have answers. To the contrary, we’ve had important successes. The 1996 welfare reform rises to the top. School choice, which allows low-income parents to get their children out of failing and often violent public schools, is another example.
But we’ve made precious few attempts to string these single notes together into something larger.
We have yet to popularize a competitor to the prevailing tune about how to meet the needs of our neighbors: the one that says to fight poverty by spending more, by starting another federal program.
And so about 90 leaders gathered last week for an anti-poverty conference hosted by the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. They included policymakers and policy-implementers, researchers and program evaluators, service providers and ministry leaders, representatives of philanthropy networks and communicators. Fourteen leaders of state welfare agencies participated.
Our objective is to help more Americans escape poverty by promoting work, marriage, civil society, and welfare-spending restraints.
The many disciplines represented at the conference on Capitol Hill reflect the complexities of the human needs we seek to meet. But because we work in different disciplines, we might not often think of ourselves as a cohesive anti-poverty movement. And if we don’t, that means the public certainly doesn’t. As November 6 showed, we have our work cut out for us.
We share a commitment to principles deeply related to the flourishing of all Americans. Evidence and experience testify to it. Marriage reduces the probability of child poverty by 80 percent. Work-based welfare recognizes that personal responsibility is essential to human dignity. If these realities are not yet widely understood, we owe it to all our neighbors to make that message clearer, appealing to their best intentions and their best interests. Justice and compassion demand that we do not just walk away.
A single mother on welfare may reflexively accept liberal policies. But if we believe that long-term government dependency doesn’t do justice to her dignity, we ought to be able to explain that in a way that taps into her aspirations for a better future — particularly for her children. Anyone who thinks that’s not possible should consider how low-income parents have clamored for school choice.
In advancing a conservative agenda to fight poverty, we’ve got five Big C’s to conquer:
Communication. We are being defeated by straw men in the poverty debate. If we don’t talk in our own terms about overcoming poverty, our opponents will caricature our position. Conservatives need to go on offense, explaining why the welfare state has not done justice to the poor and pointing the way to upward mobility. That means communicating facts and stories in every possible venue — from op-eds to congressional hearings and town halls to state-agency press releases.
Content. Conservatives need to offer a concrete description of our near-term objectives: We want to build on the success of the welfare reform of 1996, which reformed just one of 80 federal means-tested programs that in total are now funded to the tune of $1 trillion annually. We seek to secure the safety net for those truly in need — and to ensure that it encourages work and marriage rather than long-term dependency. And we look to civil society to transform lives and communities and restore the path to upward mobility.
Courage. Policymakers need conviction, coupled with the confidence that comes from being equipped with the facts and seeing firsthand the life-changing alternatives to the status quo. They need to meet the former addicts restored through Jubal Garcia’s work at Victory Fellowship in San Antonio, or the couples that have built healthy marriages thanks to Bishop Shirley Holloway’s House of Help/City of Hope in Washington, D.C.
Credibility. Showing up, learning, and listening are top priorities. When the Republican Study Committee launched an anti-poverty initiative this fall, their first order of business was to hold a summit where they listened as neighborhood leaders from across the country — Jubal and Shirley among them — told of challenges and successes in exercising effective compassion.
Critical mass. We need others to join in to begin to change this tune. At the Heritage Foundation, we’re committed to linking arms with a growing coalition of leaders to build a conservative anti-poverty movement.
Think of gatherings like the one last week as songwriters’ workshops. Our challenge is to sound the notes that ring true to human need, to arrange them in a way that reminds listeners of what human dignity demands, and to make the music compelling enough for others to join in.
— Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation and author of the book Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century.