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Neighbors, Not Governments

David French, one of my favorite social observers, put up a post on The Corner I saved through the holidays to read later. As usual, it’s thoughtful, synthesized analysis, about how the Christian Left thinks of poverty.
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.
For some time now, the consistent topic I’ve been returning to in my head and conversation has been social policy: Is it possible to encourage morally, structurally, and economically good actions like marriage, hard work, and honesty? If so, how? French is getting me closer to some answers.
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 [McArdle]: 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?
This is an area in which one of my liberal friends shines. She’s a social worker, and works to get people access to whatever government or charitable programs might possibly help them. I don’t like the idea of expanding handouts in general (though a good deal of these programs aren’t handouts per se because they’re tied to education and job goals and achievements), but it’s hard to disparage connecting needy people with programs that already exist. Because of her deep concern for the poor, she actually goes out to the poor. Now, that doesn’t mean everyone ought to be a social worker or foster parent. But, to me, it does say that rather than pushing government (AKA, someone else) to “do something for the poor,” we Christians should renew and strengthen our historic hands-on charity. And that doesn’t mean some vague somebody. It means me. It means you. It’s harder to help your neighbor than to demand everyone pay higher taxes to hand him some. But Christ celebrated the single Samaritan, not the Roman welfare system.