THE BLOG
08/29/2012 08:56 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2012

A Poverty of Imagination

It's complicated.

Twenty years ago, in the run-up to the 1996 welfare reform law, the United States was in the thick of an argument over how to confront the issue of poverty. Back then, just about everyone agreed that billions of dollars in federal welfare spending had trapped the poor in a culture of government dependency. Most observers also admitted that the American family was in deep trouble -- about 80 percent of inner-city children were being born to single women -- and that these two facts were powerfully connected. "In every large city in America," wrote social scientist Charles Murray, "the family as we have known it throughout Western history seems terminal."

These facts were well established. The debate then, and now, is what to do about it. Under the Obama administration, the poverty rate has been climbing steadily and is expected to hit its highest levels since the 1960s. The problem is that both liberals and conservatives are neglecting the lessons of the debate over poverty a generation ago.

Some conservatives talk as if the only thing required is for government to get out of the way: slash government assistance, they say, and private-sector charity will rise from the ashes, like the mythical phoenix, to take care of society's neediest. This attitude is a reminder that utopian fantasies are not confined to the political and religious left.

It is hard to overstate the psychic shift that 50 years of Great Society engineering has brought to all levels of social outreach -- right down to the church-run soup kitchen. The hard truth is that the worst assumptions of the welfare state have shaped and distorted social assistance of all kinds. The lack of personal responsibility, the denigration of entry-level jobs as the training ground for better employment, the isolation of individuals from their families, the indifference to marriage, the denial of any moral or spiritual dimension to the problem of poverty -- these and other habits of mind infect much of what passes for private-sector charity.

Moreover, too many "family-values" voters ignore how difficult it can be to help individuals whose lives have been ravaged by violent and dysfunctional families. Yes, a growing economy is crucial: a good-paying job is still the best anti-poverty program around. But it's not a panacea. As liberal columnist William Raspberry wrote over 20 years ago: "If I could offer a single prescription for the survival of America, and particularly black America, it would be: restore the family." Is the private sector -- its charities, philanthropies and houses of worship -- really up to the task?

The liberal mistake is to assume that Big Government must remain the dominant -- and domineering -- alternative. The liberal conceit is to believe that government action translates into "compassion" for the poor. By arguing this way, liberals fail to understand the nature and depth of human need.

Consider a homeless man named Walter, whom I met years ago on the streets of New York City. He was coming out of a needle-exchange program. These government-funded programs distribute clean needles to drug users, free of charge and no questions asked. The idea is to prevent addicts from sharing dirty syringes and contracting HIV. Walter had just received a supply of new needles, courtesy of the taxpayers of New York.

Walter admitted to me that he wasn't using the needles himself; he was selling them on the street for bags of heroin. (Lots of other addicts at needle-exchange programs do the same.) I asked him if he could picture his life without drugs. Could he imagine himself clean, employed, married, maybe a homeowner? I'll never forget his answer: "I'm way past that," he said. "The best thing I do is getting high ... Just put me on an island and don't mess with me."

This is liberal compassion on display -- a moral atrocity. This is what journalist Marvin Olasky, in a trenchant critique, called "the tragedy of American compassion." Like Walter, many of the poor don't even dare to hope for a measure of dignity or purpose in their lives. They have given up on themselves. And why shouldn't they? In the ways that matter most -- in matters of the heart and soul -- the liberal welfare state has given up on them.

No one understands this problem better than the faith-based organizations that quietly and heroically serve the poor in their neighborhoods every day. I'm not talking about the mealy mouthed ministries that duplicate the fatalism of the nanny state. I mean the churches and religious charities, braced by a belief in the fierce love of a holy God, who plunge into the messy lives of the poor. They ask questions -- hard questions -- and lots of them. These good Samaritans are tender-hearted, yet tough-minded.

A compassionate society will keep its most vulnerable from slipping into utter destitution and despair. It will mobilize public support to preserve a social safety net. But logic and experience tell us that the most important anti-poverty work cannot be left primarily to government. We must re-imagine a caregiving society that draws deeply on the resources of its faith communities: the qualities of grace and forgiveness which give hope to the impoverished soul.

"Put yourself in the place of every poor man," wrote evangelical leader John Wesley, "and deal with him as you would God deal with you." Here is the one thing the secular State, by definition, cannot do -- and the one thing that could make all the difference in the world.