Liberals often accuse conservatives of not being compassionate toward the poor. The numbers say the opposite is true. Arthur Brooks' book Who Really Cares? points out that religious conservatives are the MOST generous and that secular liberals are the LEAST generous when it comes to giving away their own money. (See WORLD's interview with Brooks here.)
When it comes to other people's money? Well, that's a different story. Of course, there are lots of problems with giving away other people's money, even when that money has been accumulated by the government through taxation. For one thing, it's still other people's money. Governments are stewards, not owners. Government officials have a profound responsibility to the true owners.
For another, even if you have permission to give it away, it's likely that you won't care as much about the value you get in return. To use a too-human example: When I used to travel for the accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers, I regularly treated myself to those $5 yogurt cones they sell in airports. It became a miscellaneous expense on my T&E report. Today, not so much. McDonald's $1 value cones are not as good, but they give me 80 percent of the satisfaction for 20 percent of the cost. The $4 I get to keep more than makes up the satisfaction deficit as I deploy that money in other ways.
These questions of value and responsibility and accountability are at the center of conversations about welfare reform. This is an important year for these conversations. For one thing, 2011 is the 15th anniversary of the 1996 welfare reform initiatives. Many of those reforms were based on the work of Dr. Marvin Olasky, the editor-in-chief of WORLD Magazine. That's why I am particularly interested anytime he has something to say on the subject, as he did in the latest issue of WORLD, about the dangers of re-defining poverty as a relative measurement. In other words, defining the poor as those in the lowest percentile, quintile (20 percent), or third of the population. Or defining the poverty line as a percentage of the median income, as the Europeans do. Olasky says a new plan by the Obama administration, to be unveiled on Sept. 1, takes us in that direction.
He admits that it's sort of a "wonkish" issue, but angels and devils are often in the wonkish details. In any case, Olasky's analysis is un-wonkish and accessible. He says the problem with a "relative" measure (such as a comparison to the median) is that it has the tendency to permanently trap people in welfare dependency who might otherwise be able to care for themselves with work. This permanent welfare dependency also rob those so trapped of the dignity that work and self-sufficiency bring. More objective measures (such as those that measure the true cost of food and shelter) help policy makers focus resources on those who truly can't care for themselves. Olasky summarizes the problem with relative measures:
"Conservatives, though, should criticize the concept that if everyone's income doubles over the course of a decade, the number of people considered poor does not change: That will move us from "A rising tide lifts all boats" to "Your boat is still bigger than mine." Furthermore, our real public-policy goal for those now classified as poor should be not to trap more in welfare but to create more economic opportunities for them to leave poverty."
There's much more in Olasky's fascinating article, which you can read here. The take-away for me was this: As Christians we should remember that the goal of "loving our neighbor" is not to make ourselves feel good. Knowing the right thing to do and then having the courage to do it is sometimes not an easy exercise -- intellectually, spiritually, or politically.
That's why it's a good thing we have guides such as Olasky, who has thought deeply on these issues. I commend this article to you, as well as his book The Tragedy of American Compassion, which got the original 1996 welfare reforms started.