How should America respond to the presence of poor people in our midst? As the richest country on earth, the United States has great capacity to help the poor, and most Americans think we have a moral obligation to do so. Helping the poor is an important responsibility of government and of individuals and private organizations as well.
How best to help the poor, however, is not as clear as it may seem. Opinion leaders sometimes suggest we should simply spend more on the needy, giving them more benefits and services than they receive now. In this view, recent conservative administrations in Washington have unduly cut back our commitments. But our responsibility, I will argue, is not simply to spend more or less on the problem. Rather, it is to do what the poor most deeply require.
Recent conservative policies are more effective than what came before, and it would be a mistake to abandon them.
The difficulty is that poverty involves more than low income. To defeat it does require spending money, but it also entails getting more of the needy to help themselves. The adult poor must work as other people do. Poor children must get through school and avoid trouble with the law and unwed pregnancy if they are to get ahead in life. Progress against poverty, then, requires programs with the capacity to redirect lives, not just transfer resources.
Government has had some success in developing programs like this in recent years. Our best course is to continue down this road.
Ordinary Americans have practical views about poverty. They combine an earnest desire to help with an insistence that the poor help themselves. Political leaders, activists, and experts are much more polarized. Some have contended that the poor are entitled to aid regardless of lifestyle or, alternatively, that they should get nothing at all from government. Wiser views come from our religious traditions. In the Bible, God commands serious attention to the poor, but the emphasis is not on abstractions such as rights, freedom, or equality but on restoring community. That requires that there be right relationships among people within society and also between them and God. To that end, we must be generous toward the poor, but we should also expect good behavior from them.