Winning the Battle Against American Poverty

Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Religion Today on January 13, 2014.

Recent speeches by Senators Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Marco Rubio and comments by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan have offered thoughtful ideas concerning the best ways to help our fellow citizens in need.

What is striking is not only the innovativeness of a number of their ideas for addressing both personal and national economies, but also the continued misinterpretation of data of what constitutes American poverty and how to remedy it.

Economic need exists: this is indisputable. But in addition to the relative ineffectiveness of federally-based solutions for this need, (1) it often is mischaracterized and also (2) is not related to that most essential of all social and economic programs: the family.

Heritage Foundation scholars Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield have written, "Exaggeration and misinformation about poverty obscure the nature, extent, and causes of real material deprivation, thereby hampering the development of well-targeted, effective programs to reduce the problem." They continue:

"In 2005, the typical household defined as poor by the government had a car and air conditioning. For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR. If there were children, especially boys, in the home, the family had a game system, such as an Xbox or a PlayStation. In the kitchen, the household had a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave. Other household conveniences included a clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone, and a coffee maker."

The income data on American poverty often fail to include such things as the USDA's Women, Infants, and Children program; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides such things as food stamps; public housing; the Earned Income Tax Credit; and other benefits that augment relatively meager incomes. In other words, we're frequently mis-measuring poverty and how many Americans struggle with it.

With all that said, does true need exist in our country? Of course. Go to certain neighborhoods in places like Detroit or Camden, New Jersey, and you feel like you're in the slums of Dickensian London. But 50 years into our anti-poverty "war," does not the continued, even seemingly calcified, existence of such places defy ongoing pleas for yet more massive federal social spending?

Consider some common sense ideas from Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee on streamlining and consolidating myriad federal programs:

"There is no good reason the federal government should maintain 79 separate means-tested programs.There is no good reason why almost none of these programs feature the kind of work-requirements that helped transition millions of Americans into jobs after the 1996 reform. And there is no good reason federal policy should reward states for higher spending rather than improved results ... and so one of our first priorities should be to simply get existing federal programs under control."

Good counsel, this. Why is it not at the forefront of the national conversation? Perhaps because the belief of the Left in the centrality and necessity of government programs is an article of political faith, not a judgment concerning workable, real-world solutions.

In addition to the mischaracterization of poverty and the Left's insistence on sustaining and expanding programs that, in the long term, accelerate dependency and foster economic anemia, there is a factor that advocates of federal solutions seem unwilling even to consider: the family.

As my colleagues at FRC's Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI) cogently have argued:

"U.S. family planning policies have undermined the U.S. economy. The sensible economic policy is to grow intact, stable married families instead of favoring sexual unions that are not child-centered. A sane government would work to reverse all laws, policies and programs that undermine fertile marriage such as no fault-divorce, abortion, education formation of high-school students in extra-marital sexual intercourse, and family planning services that have resulted in a massive increase in single-parent families, and the loss of well over 50 million workers. Tax policies should support rather than penalize marriage and family formation."

Want a stronger economy? Incentivize (i.e., tax policies that encourage marriage) healthy family formation.

Want to make a path for those in need to build a higher measure of prosperity? Strengthen families with a mom, a dad, and three or more children who worship together weekly.

Want to resolve genuine, ongoing economic deprivation? Encourage people, through the reform of various public policies, not to have children until they are married and, once married, to stay married.

Poverty is real. Economic disparity is undeniable. Solutions need not just to be discussed but applied. Christians need to be concerned not just with noble motives but effective action. So, to quote Ronald Reagan, if not now, when?