The Corner

When Is $16 Trillion Not Enough?

Last week I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion at a large local church that was essentially about the role of Christians in the “Occupy” movements (one of the leaders of Occupy Nashville participated) and the proper Christian response to poverty and inequality. I’ve participated in many such discussions over the years, and I’m always struck by the core assumptions of many on the Christian Left: First, that America has not done enough — either charitably or through government programs — to improve the plight of the poor; second, that the right kind of governmental investment will make substantial differences in American poverty; and third, that America’s poor are largely victims of the wrong kind of government policies and individual greed.

For these individuals, the $16 trillion we’ve spent on means-tested welfare since the War on Poverty began represents a grossly inadequate expenditure, and the answer (it’s the same answer with public education, by the way) is more, more, more — more money, more programs, and more taxation. Yet after $16 trillion, we have a different kind of more, more, more — more illegitimacy, more citizens in poverty, and more inequality, with growing stickiness at the bottom.

Over at the The Atlantic, Megan McArdle has been writing an excellent series of posts on poverty (this is one of my favorites) that show both the profound limits of anti-poverty programs and the difficulty of real character change. (“Get married and stay married” is great advice, but in shattered neighborhoods, where are the truly eligible future spouses?) I love this observation:

As adults they are the products of everything that has happened to them, and everything that they have done, but they are also now exercising free will.  If you assume you know the choice they should make, and that there is some reliable way to entice them to make it, you’re imagining away their humanity, and replacing it with an automaton. Having higher wage jobs available would give people more money which would be a good thing, and it would solve the sort of problems that stem from a simple lack of money.  But it would not turn them into different people. Public policy can modestly improve the incentives and choice sets that poor people face–and it should do those things.  But it cannot remake people into something more to the liking of bourgeois taxpayers.  And it would actually be pretty creepy if it could.

The evangelical world is locked in an often-heated battle over the proper response to continued poverty in America, with much of that battle focused on politics. But I agree with Megan: public policy can modestly improve choices and behaviors, but it can’t “remake” people. That requires an ingredient all too often missing from the poverty debate: individual engagement and investment in the lives of the poor. Can any government program surpass in importance the influence of mentors or, say, foster parents? If poor kids face daunting challenges to good decision-making, can’t additional or replacement role models make a profound difference?

The political problem, of course, is that you can’t mandate and systematize the kind of engagement that makes a large-scale difference. The choice to engage is only meaningful if it’s a real choice motivated by something far more potent than any government program. We can, however, stop defining engagement down. Advocacy isn’t necessarily public service and “fighting for” the poor means much less than actually meeting the poor where they are. Simply put, a protest is a poor substitute for a relationship.


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