The Corner

More on Dependency: The Difference Between a Hand-out and a Leg Up

My post yesterday on dependency triggered an interesting discussion in the comments, and I wanted to follow up on a point I made near the end of the post — regarding the imperative of personal mentoring to help kids and families escape poverty.

While I was never young and liberal (a few years ago I found my old high-school yearbook and was surprised to see that almost every note mentioned my conservatism — I must have been a lot of fun to be around), I have been young and naïve. And I’ve been most naÏve about poverty and its cures. If I could distil my hard-earned lessons down to one sentence, it would be this: Any program or personal activity that doesn’t account for mankind’s fallen nature will likely fail with any given individual and is certain to fail in the aggregate. 

Trillions of dollars have been wasted on the notion that people simply need a bit of help to get by, welfare is but a temporary solution to external injustices visited upon the hard-working poor, and that government assistance can only benefit families struggling to make ends meet. Yet how many families must we shatter – how much sickness and disability must we incentivize — before we realize (to paraphrase an excellent book) that helping can (and does) hurt?

Shortly after I got married, Nancy and I started working closely with a youth group that reached out to the poorest kids in our community. The ministry was incredibly successful at getting kids in the door, and we spent countless hours at worship services, at lunch, at dinner, and elsewhere with these kids, and we thought we were making a real difference. One kid in particular — let’s just call him “Brian” — was desperately poor. His mother was an addict, he lived in a run-down single-wide trailer in the worst of our town’s trailer parks, and his clothes were so threadbare they barely stayed on his body.

We wanted to help. And “help” we did — by buying clothes, food, and other things Brian needed. We did it again and again, until we found out that we were simply the latest target in a long-running con, a con that victimized other church members as well. When we went back to Brian, upset at the deception but still wanting to do something to help, we gently proposed tying future assistance to things like school performance or other signs that he was doing something proactive to help himself. The response? He left church, and — by coincidence, I’m sure — our cars were repeatedly broken into and ransacked.

We gave Brian a hand-out.

The next year — not much older but much wiser — we intervened to help a different kid. We’ll call him “Bob.” Like many other kids in our church’s youth ministry, he came from a broken home, had absolutely zero financial resources, and his parents were alcoholics. He had had barely passed in high school, but just after graduation, in a moment of personal crisis, he began drinking heavily and disappeared from church. We loved him and couldn’t bear the thought that he’d fall through the cracks. We found him an apartment right by our house and moved him in, but placed strict conditions on our help — conditions that involved not only finding and keeping a job but also spending a lot of time together (dinners, visits, etc.) The goal wasn’t just to give him the means to succeed, but also help him develop the habits and qualities of life that allow a person to live on their own, meet a wife, and raise a family.

By God’s infinite mercy and grace, Bob is doing very well, has a good job, a beautiful wife, and kids who are thriving. In fact, I’m sure he could teach us a thing or two about marriage and parenting (we need all the help we can get).

We gave Bob a leg up.

I tell these stories not because I think our anecdotes are definitive, but they are illustrative. And they’re sobering. The appeal of the “Brian” approach is that it’s replicable on a mass scale. Giving things away is easy, and if you have the power to tax, it can be compulsory.

The “Bob” approach, however, isn’t as easily replicated. The richer you get, the more money you can give away, but we all only have so much time. Yet it’s the personal investment — of true care and concern combined with real mentoring — that’s going to make the most difference.

It’s also risky. No approach is perfect, people are still fallen, and sometimes the helpers get hurt — emotionally and otherwise — when literally nothing works to turn around a person’s life.

We want poverty to be solved by programs, where we can employ people to fix it, delegate our virtue to the professionals through the power of the purse, and watch society’s problems melt away. Then, we could measure our progress through appropriations and intentions, content that money equaled results and wait for that glorious day when the schools had all the money they needed, and the Air Force had to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber (yes, I still remember that 1980s bumper sticker).

But life does not work that way, and poverty isn’t solved by programs. Instead, lives are changed by God working through people who are willing to invest not just money but time, energy, and true care and concern in the lives of others. And no, that’s not a program, but it works, and it’s more feasible than we might imagine. After all, even as millions of Americans live in poverty, 240 million more live with varying degrees of prosperity — and perhaps more of us would invest in others if we hadn’t been sold the lie that welfare works, that poverty’s solvable by programs, and there are thus shortcuts to transforming the human heart.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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