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A Conversation on Poverty, Compassion, and Economics

The current welfare system may be problematic, but private efforts cannot take its place, said Robert Doar at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on-campus discussion at Patrick Henry College (PHC) on Saturday, March 14.

AEI is a think tank in Washington, D.C. that researches government, politics, economics, and social welfare. Doar is the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at AEI.

Around 40 students listened to Doar’s analysis of the current welfare system, a PHC faculty response, and a panel of local leaders’ discussing community programs.

After 7 years working as Commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration, Doar came away with practical ways to improve the current welfare system.

phcdoar2Doar recommends personal responsibility on the part of the low-income individual, work support to supplement low wages, and stresses the importance of two-parent households in preventing poverty later in life.

At the end of the day there is only so much programs can do.

“A free economy that is growing and producing jobs… is enormously effective in helping people get a job and move up,” Doar said.

Doar pointed out that while education, volunteerism, and faith based programs are good, they make up only 5 percent of assistance.

“I’m a little skeptical of the ability for those parts of our society to scale up to meet the need,” Doar said. “We have to deal with what we’ve got in front of us.”

PHC faculty and students seemed to disagree.

Meredith Schultz, a PHC alumnus now working with AEI’s Values & Capitalism project, moderated a faculty response with Dr. Michael Haynes and Prof. Nathan Russell.

Dr. Haynes questioned why programs that have proven to be ineffective continue to be utilized if they aren’t helping people get out of poverty.

“I think we all agree, if we are going to be engaged… it should be effective. It should do what it’s intended to do and not something else,” he said.

Prof. Russell spoke out even more strongly in favor of private intervention to help the poor.

“If every piece of federal charity is necessary…we would have seen more consequences prior to federal charity,” Prof. Russell said.

“We need to fight the temptation to succumb to the crowding out effect,” he said. The crowding out effect is where one no longer contributes to a crisis, when it is perceived that another entity is already taking care of the problem.

He admits the private amount of aid supplied is small. “But it’s a little myopic to say that it cannot suffice,” he said.

To encourage economic mobility, Dr. Haynes recommended removing restrictions from small businesses, which supply 80 percent of all jobs.

After the response, Meredith Schultz led a discussion made up of leaders in the community: Wayne Ruckman, COO of Tree of Life Ministries; Alison McGill, president of Lazarus Ministries; Derrick Max, executive director of Cornerstone Schools; and Chelsea Geyer, director of DC127.


They discussed practical ways for people to advocate for the poor, such as building personal relationships, treating others with dignity, and looking for creative ways to help, despite busy schedules.

After the panel, remaining students separated into groups for the “simulation and policy practicum.” Students brainstormed and proposed private or public enterprises to the business leaders. One group proposed a non-profit that would partner with schools to encourage entrepreneurship among children.

AEI’s Executive Council at PHC hosted the conference after students attended a Values and Capitalism Conference last summer, and wanted to host a similar one at PHC.

“I think… [it’s] valuable for PHC students to hear a conservative, Christian scholar articulate ideas that… differ from their own,” Executive Council Chair Lanson Hoopai said. “The conservative views on government are not monolithic.”

Government major Teresa Scanlan pointed out that Christian’s shouldn’t engage in complaining. Rather, they should act. “As Christians, we shouldn’t try to limit government first and then help,” Scanlan said.

The goal of the conference, Hoopai said, was to raise a conversation that might challenge presuppositions students might have.

“The reason it’s controversial is because people recognize a real need, and they have a very humanitarian concern,” Hoopai said. “Christians say it’s our duty [to help the poor], but perhaps there are ways to go about it that are more efficient than others.”