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Ending poverty-fighting as we know it

Poverty | Christians left and right lobby Obama administration to make war on poverty

Issue: "Wealth and poverty," March 14, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C.-Scene: A small, Las-Vegas-chapel-size room at the National Press Club. Witnesses: A dozen reporters and a bank of cameras. Date: Feb. 17. Occasion: An unlikely and awkward wedding between left and right activists and analysts such as Michael Gerson, former speechwriter and adviser to President George W. Bush, and Sojourners president Jim Wallis, loud critic of Bush and his faith-based initiatives.

Yes, Gerson, Wallis, and others were holding a press conference-together. Looking around the room, Gerson could only describe the experience as an "orgy of strange bedfellows." The odd couple avoided looking at each other during the conference, and as soon as it was over Gerson hurried out, leaving Wallis to hobnob with reporters.

The two rolled out the work of the Poverty Forum, a group of 18 Christian policy junkies and community development activists that formed to develop government antidotes to poverty that both those on the left and right could swallow. One of the 18, Brent Orrell, formerly a director in Bush's faith-based initiatives office, described the work as "incarnational bipartisanship"-though the policies may represent more of a gesture of unity than actual compromises or sacrifices.

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Just before the Poverty Forum's press conference, Congress passed the economic stimulus bill with the support of zero Republicans in the House and only three in the Senate, so pundits were gabbing on the question: Is bipartisanship dead? A headline from Politico that week read: "The new D.C.: same as it ever was." The Poverty Forum participants-progressives, Catholics, and a gaggle from the Bush administration-took their own shot at crossing the aisle. "You can tell Mike and I have had lunch, and that's a good thing to do," Wallis said.

The Forum participants contended that the stimulus, packed with funds to prop up state governments, wouldn't do much to help the 7.5 million to 10 million Americans who could fall into poverty over the next two years if current unemployment trends continue, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. They praised the stimulus legislation's expansion of the earned income tax credit, which some economists see as a healthy alternative to welfare, and proposed a $1 hike in the minimum wage.

That proposal is controversial because economic theory indicates that raising the minimum wage increases unemployment-employers will hire fewer people if labor is more expensive. Some economists say that theory doesn't play out in real life: When the minimum wage is modestly raised, the unemployment rate hasn't shifted substantially. The quibble then is whether $1, a 15 percent increase, is a modest hike.

Some Policy Forum recommendations, including one to promote healthy marriages, are continuations of Bush programs. Rates of divorce vary by class, and the policy-writers argue that children raised in healthy marriages are less likely to fall into poverty. Forum participants also want legislation to preserve support for pregnant mothers and their unborn children in the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). They want to review legislation to make sure the government isn't penalizing marriage through tax structures or compensation programs.

Another proposal is that the federal government create a Financial Services Corp. with advisors who would offer personalized financial counseling to low- and middle-income families. (This would help create jobs by "leveraging those unemployed from the financial services sector.") Among the proposals that would further centralize decision-making in Washington are pleas to establish a new category for grants and a new federal organization to train community organizations to apply for those grants.

Other recommendations include the creation of 2 million new housing vouchers that would allow people to move to areas "where they have direct access to high-quality schools." Conspicuously missing is any proposal for school vouchers that would give poor parents access to high-quality private schools in their own communities.

One proposal that could be particularly divisive is giving voting rights to ex-offenders. The idea is that felons who have served their time should become re-involved in their communities and public life: In theory, this would lower the rate of recidivism (committing new crimes and returning to prison). The Department of Justice estimates that two-thirds of ex-offenders will be arrested again within three years of their release, and 40 percent will be incarcerated again. That rate is much lower among those who in prison became involved with Prison Fellowship or other Christ-focused programs. If ex-felons tended to prefer soft-on-crime candidates, their votes would make a difference in close races.

At the end of the proposal list are several useful items devoted to "strengthening civil society" rather than the federal government, including allowing non-itemizing income tax payers to deduct a portion of their charitable gifts, and easing the process of forming community-serving 501(c)(3) organizations.

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