The Common Good
June 2004

Perspectives on Poverty

by Nathan Wilson | June 2004

Two distinct audiences will get much out of Lifting Up the Poor:

Two distinct audiences will get much out of Lifting Up the Poor: religious activists who want to better understand the complex causes of poverty and communicate more effectively with policymakers about its elimination; and secular activists who want to learn about religious claims and convictions integral to an honest debate about poverty, policy choices and, more broadly, the public purposes of religion.

Policy wonks, religious or secular, will recognize the names of these two authors—both live up to their reputations for rigorous policy analysis. Mary Jo Bane teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and was co-chair of President Clinton’s Working Group on Welfare Reform and assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services. Larry Mead teaches at New York University and was deputy director of research for the Republican National Committee and policy analyst at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

In this slim book, Bane and Mead apply their faith and political expertise to issues of poverty. Although they agree more than they disagree, it’s instructive to focus on three areas of disagreement. First, they approach and interpret the Christian story differently. Bane, a Catholic, views the Bible as one source of social teaching along with tradition, reason, and experience. Scripture reading helps form the community into one that, at its best, is "joyful, hopeful, inclusive, and generous," Bane writes. Mead approaches the Christian story from a Calvinist perspective, which is characterized by discipline, responsibility, and skepticism about human nature and behavior.

Their interpretations predict their differing conclusions about poverty data, including the extent to which outside barriers of opportunity (such as racism or job scarcity) or behavioral choices (such as single-parenthood or laziness on the part of able-bodied adults) contribute to working-age poverty. Bane gives greater weight to outside barriers, Mead to behavioral choices.

This first area of difference anticipates the second: the core explanation for poverty’s continued existence. Both give attention to working-age adults who do not work. For Bane, this is a relatively small subgroup of the poor. Mead, by contrast, argues that this group is the core of the problem and has been the subject of most policy contention over the last few decades.

In both religious and public policy terms, this is huge. Religiously, it was the wedge issue that separated religious advocacy groups from working together in the mid-1990s, when welfare reform talk was hot and heavy. In terms of public policy, this issue drives to the heart of the effectiveness of work requirements and their consequent sanctions in welfare programs. How effective is it to sanction recipients for not working when there is not work to be found or when those with work won’t hire people of a certain race, ethnicity, or religion? On the other hand, how effective is it to continue providing entitlements to people who are not working simply because they are unwilling to accept situations that are less than ideal?

This area of disagreement is substantial for another reason. Though hard data is difficult to find, at least a percentage of nonworking adults are not working because of a lack of jobs rather than a lack of effort. Many past government programs to provide jobs failed. But newer, more innovative approaches to stimulating jobs, such as job credits and economic empowerment zones, have not been adequately researched. Bane and Mead (and others) would perform a great service by doing so.

The third area where the two disagree is perhaps the most predictable: their respective policy recommendations on entitlements and work requirements. Here the two differ on the extent to which benefits—such as food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, and housing supports—need to be available without the requirement of work from the recipient. Bane argues for entitlement to basic levels of assistance in areas such as education and health care for those of working age, even when they do not work. Mead, on the other hand, wants to require work. He sees it as necessary to demand responsibility.

I’ll end with the book’s opening question: "Do prophets have useful things to say to politicians about appropriate policies toward the poor?" While classifying Bane and Mead as prophets may be a stretch, it’s clear that policy wonks informed by religious conviction have useful things to say about poverty. Their ability to combine meticulous policy analysis with thorough theological reflection serves as a model of constructive debate about an emotionally charged issue.

Nathan Wilson, former director of public policy for Call to Renewal, works as a strategist specializing in communications, organizational management, and consensus building for political candidates, churches, and advocacy groups.

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