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The Great Poverty Debate

Last night, I attended a panel debate titled “Another Day in Paradise?: Humanity, Charity and the Urban Poor” at the American Enterprise Institute. Prominent thought leaders debated the moral and economic issues surrounding the problem of poverty at a Values and Capitalism event.

I found myself nodding my head and shuddering throughout the discussion in fairly equal measure. The four panelists represented nearly every side of the economic spectrum, agreeing on the vital role private charities play in fighting poverty but differing on the necessary level of government involvement.

Lawrence M. Mead, professor of politics and public policy at New York University, made the case that purely voluntary charitable efforts fail to adequately address the poverty problem. He believes the problem is not incomeit’s unemployment. Mead focused his position on human responsibility, cited biblical examples, and called for welfare reform that properly incentivizes the poor to better help themselves.

There’s no doubt that existing welfare programs desperately need reform, but I scrunched my eyebrows a bit during the panel discussion when Mead said, “Obligating [the poor] to behave better is not a problem,” in reference to the role of government. Where do we draw the line between proper incentives and legislating moral choices?

Next, Ismael Hernandez, founder of the Freedom and Virtue Institute, took the podium. This guy was more my style.

Formerly an active member of the Socialist Party in Puerto Rico, Hernandez spoke from experience and from the heart. He stressed the dignity of the human person and the manner in which government involvement destroys the community. He made the point that our current system creates a disconnect between reward and accomplishment and this is a terrible disincentive for the poor. Reiterating this point, Hernandez explained when a man is unemployed he receives a check from the government in the mail rather than seeking assistance from his family, through his church, or in his community.

Taking the conversation in a different direction, Chris LaTondresse, founder and CEO of Recovering Evangelical, harped on big business greed and labor exploitation. He said, “If this isn’t greed, then I don’t think the word greed really has any meaning. It’s unpatriotic and as a follower of Jesus I also believe that it is un-Christian.” I cringed because I knew his statement was code for “bigger government” in the name of Christianity.

Last up to the stand was Max Finberg, the director of the USDA Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. He argued the best way to alleviate poverty is to focus on bridging the gap between the government and charitable organizations. Government safety nets are necessary, suggested Finberg, and he cited the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as an example of a successful safety net program.

The event provided an especially interesting discussion as all panelists cited influences of their Christian faith or moral convictions, yet all arrived at different policy solutions. A common consensus among the debaters was the need for a strong community to effectively fight poverty. The question to ponder is whether or not government is effective in enhancing community. Can the government enhance community or does government destroy it? Is community helped or harmed when the government “fills the gaps” that private charity misses? The answer might be more complex than I originally thought.

Watch the debate here.