Spotlight Exclusives

August 17, 2009: Religion and Poverty: Commonsense solutions to poverty, By Randall Brandt, former Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of State and former Deputy Staff Director and Counsel for the Senate Republican Conference

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Spotlight is hosting an ongoing conversation that asks how and whether religious and faith communities should address the issue of poverty in America and explores the relationship between religion and public policy.

Previous entries in the series have included the following:

“Why the Evangelical Apathy to Governmental Assistance?”by Dr. Scott Stearman

“Obama۪s Budget Addresses Economic Inequality,” by Ronald J. Sider

“Faith in Action,” by Mark Rodgers

“Let All Who Are Hungry Come and Eat,” By Rabbi Steve Gutow and Dr. H. Eric Schockman

For a number of years, I observed and participated in partisan and bipartisan policy efforts and debates to address the challenges of poverty in our country. To be clear, that is quite different from those heroes and heroines who actually roll up their sleeves and help people in need. Nonetheless, there are some obvious priority areas for addressing poverty where we should be able to find common ground. These include educational opportunity, the importance of family, building assets, and the contribution of faith and community.

Graduation rates and the quality of public education in big cities around our country are unacceptably low

Most politicians provide lip service or ignore this problem. Many are willing to defer to influential interest groups rather than rock the boat, and others are overwhelmed by the size of the challenge. “School choice” remains for those who can afford it, moving to “better” neighborhoods or school districts or spending significant resources beyond what one already pays in taxes for a private school alternative. At the same time, many in Congress are engaging in ongoing efforts to kill an existing parental choice pilot scholarship program in Washington, DC.

The same political class often makes great fun of No Child Left Behind and perhaps feels more comfortable with Most Children Left Behind in many of our cities around this country. While imperfect, the initiative truly began to address the soft bigotry of low expectations, which for informed folks is harder to ridicule. It also began to revive the radical principle that accountability should be a central part of our commitment to children in public education. The fact remains that in urban public education, the building is on fire. It is foolish to preclude or undermine any competent fire trucks on the way to the fire or to say that certain hoses don۪t pass our litmus test and shouldn۪t be used to provide much needed water and hope.

According to Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation, national high school graduation rates in 2006 were 73%, with only 61% of Hispanic students and 59% of African American students graduating. In some of our largest cities, less than half of students finish high school. In Baltimore and Cleveland, only about one-third of all students graduated. A mere 30% graduated in Indianapolis, while in Detroit, which spends more than $13,000 a year per student, only 25% graduated. New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, Denver, and Atlanta all spent more than $10,000 per student, yet had graduation rates below 50%.

I have observed the imperfect but powerful effects of accountability in the early stages of this new educational experiment going on in our nation۪s capitol (in some cases in schools blocks from the Statue of Freedom on top of the Dome of the U.S. Capitol). The new DC School Chancellor, Michelle Rhee, is currently holding school principals accountable for results. This new pressure, ideally accompanied by a more effective and supportive bureaucracy, has at least enabled parents more access to these key leaders of our schools.

Good leadership can make a real difference. Hopefully, merit-based pay, targeted resources, some competition, and increased support for quality teachers will accompany these efforts. Tragically, many children and families literally need to win the educational lottery in order to have a shot at a quality education in a quality school. My public school experience was that a student only needs a handful of great teachers to inspire. You will pick up their enthusiasm, passion for learning, and care for students through their example.

The time has come to open up the curtain, acknowledge the depth of our failure, and get politics and apathy out of the way of a fair opportunity for all of our children in public schools. We are not serious about addressing poverty if we are not serious about reversing this tragic reality with all available creative means. To pretend otherwise is to abandon our responsibility to the next generation in a manner that makes the failure of the response to Hurricane Katrina a drop in the bucket. The depth of the tragedy is similar but on a national scale, just lacking the wind, torrential rain, and the TV cameras.

Kids do best with a mom and a dad

This simple statement is strongly supported by social science and is a central reality if our goal is to prevent and reduce poverty. Children raised in healthy marriages are more likely to succeed academically and attend college. This is a key barometer of better educational outcomes. They are physically and emotionally healthier. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, they are less likely to be a victim of physical or sexual abuse, to abuse drugs or alcohol, and, central to the purposes of this piece, they are significantly less likely to be raised in poverty.

These facts do not deny the heroic role of successful single parents, but, rather, highlight their success against the odds. Because of all of these benefits to children, the government should not be neutral on marriage but should constantly seek ways to support it for the benefit of children and society. If this commonsense principle is controversial, it is only in a political sense, as social scientists across the political spectrum acknowledge the dramatic benefits of a mom and a dad for the well-being of children.

I recognize that many children do not have the opportunity to live with their mom and dad. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, one out of three children in America lives apart from their fathers, in particular. Nearly two in three African American children live in father- absent homes. Nearly four in ten Hispanic children live in father-absent homes. Children in father-absent homes are more likely to be incarcerated and to be victims of child abuse and drug and alcohol abuse. They are twice as likely to drop out of school and five times more likely to live in poverty.

These compelling statistics also ought to drive our support for creative ways to keep fathers involved in the lives of their children, even absent marriage or after divorce, if we are serious about reducing poverty.

It is to the benefit of children if we work hard as families and as a society to keep fathers involved in the lives of their children. Some steps have been taken nationally, and much more can be done and should be supported across the political spectrum.

We must help families build wealth to break the cycle of poverty

Another critical way to reduce poverty for the long term and an area where significant potential exists for common ground across the political spectrum is efforts to encourage basic financial education and to build savings and wealth in families. The obvious benefits of asset-building initiatives include helping families survive difficult times by being able to draw on a rainy-day or emergency fund.

Building personal or family assets also is a key variable in breaking the cycle of poverty. Strong evidence shows that beginning to develop modest savings and investments also begins to change behavior, which is passed on to children who observe and participate. Saving builds hope as well as a bank account.

As noted by the New America Foundation and the Corporation for Enterprise Development, bipartisan initiatives and legislative proposals already exist, such as savings starting at birth through the KIDS Accounts/ASPIRE Act, matched incentives for low-income individuals and families through existing tax savings vehicles through the Saver۪s Bonus, and community-based financial education and savings incentives through Individual Development Accounts (IDAs).

These proposals hold significant promise if policymakers would start to think down the road and invest in strategic ways to alleviate poverty in partnership with communities and the private sector. Significant common ground already exists in the policy arena with these policy proposals, which could be quickly implemented and scaled up. Entitlement reforms could also creatively address some of these challenges and allow families to build and pass on assets to the next generation, further breaking the cycle of poverty.

Involvement of faith-based organizations is essential to national progress

I have also been observing for a decade the changing nature of the debate about the ability of faith-based organizations to define themselves when they interact with government. These organizations are particularly relevant as community resources in achieving the goal of progress in education, family supports for the benefit of children, and asset-building initiatives, among many other specific challenges of a multifaceted approach to poverty alleviation.

There are some well-meaning folks in this country who argue that it is discriminatory for faith-based organizations to continue to believe the First Amendment applies fully to them if they have any contact with government funds. Some come to the conclusion that this is an inviolable principle from the lens of their theological or historical traditions. For others it is a philosophical or a political agenda.

I also understand that some genuinely believe that this is the best way to protect religion, but there are numerous legal, historical, and practical problems with this position. Some highlights include the following:

  • It is appropriate for a French constitutional system, but not ours (absent a constitutional amendment to explicitly change the “bias” toward the exercise of religious freedom found in our framing document). Some don۪t seem to appreciate the potential cost to society, the cost to poverty alleviation efforts, and, essentially, the cost to Free Speech and the First Amendment
  • It argues that faith-based groups that seek to maintain their identity and the uniqueness of their mission by hiring coreligionists are discriminatory in a way unlike Democratic or Republican Members of the U.S. Congress when they hire Democratic or Republican staffers, respectively, in a “discriminatory” fashion with government funds
  • This approach argues that such groups can continue their “good works,” they just can۪t compete for or participate in government-funded efforts. This is ignoring or content with the reality that as the government grows, the public space shrinks for those unable, unwilling, or prevented from interacting with government
  • It has the effect of placing the government in the role of Theologian-in-Chief. Why? Because the reality is that in many of the major religious traditions, it is what has been traditionally described as the conservative or orthodox end of the theological continuum that continues to believe that staffing is an important part of maintaining one۪s missioni.e., theology matters. So these organizations alone are prevented from playing in the “major leagues,” primarily because of their theology. Change your theology and you can come to the government۪s ballpark.

This approach has the effect of placing ideology as a greater priority than poverty alleviation and service to those in needsomething that both ends of the political spectrum do. Limitations on the Salvation Army in California serving those with AIDS or Catholic Charities in Boston facilitating adoptions are illustrations of the consequences for those in need. The government۪s response to the devastation of Katrina was also, in part, an example of ideology over poverty solutions. For some it was more important to “save” money than to produce good outcomes that will revitalize communities and also alleviate poverty over the long haul.

There is also the following attitude: who cares what good is being done by these faith-based groups? It is more important for us to impose our ideology on them than to serve those with AIDS or place children in loving homes. Such a position may attract some creative lawyers and overzealous legislators, but it seems odd when it attracts those who espouse the alleviation of poverty, especially when in African American, Hispanic, and other communities it is often these very people who provide the human touch and compassion for those in need. These are also sometimes the neighborhoods where nonprofits, including effective faith-based organizations, constantly struggle for adequate resources.

My experience is that those on the front lines of the fight against poverty, who know the names of those in need and live in their communities, do not understand why the government would try to limit the ability of faith-based groups to continue to define themselves through staffing that shares their views. A bumper sticker labeling of it as discrimination doesn۪t hold up. In the vast majority of cases, this is religious freedom expressed through service of all in need. The focus should be results, rather than applying a litmus test to filter out those who hire on the basis of shared beliefs.

The Founders had some hard-fought wisdom when they viewed these as first principles worthy of the First Amendment. Some will be offended by what people say or believe, but this is not a satisfactory reason to curtail such freedom and selective protection under the First Amendment. Doing so places all foundational rights at risk.

In many communities, the consumers of government resources, i.e. those in need, should have the choice to be served by faith-based organizations or not, as long as those individuals in need of assistance are informed of any faith components in advance of their choice and have an alternative so the choice is a real one. When the choice is placed in the hands of the beneficiary who is to receive the services, this minimizes legitimate constitutional questions while increasing competition and potentially raising the quality of service at the same time.

Several laws signed by former President Clinton include these commonsense principles and protections for religious freedom and beneficiary choice. Any effort to move in the opposite direction does not bode well for the fight against poverty. It merely takes many of the best players off of the field or ties one hand behind their back. It starts to smell like that fire that is raging in our cities, where failed educational opportunity is sentencing a generation and more energy is spent on what resources not to use rather than getting as many trucks in as possible to fight the fire.

We can do better than that. We need to move forward aggressively in areas such as education, strengthening families for the benefit of children, asset building to break the cycle of poverty, and freeing the charitable and faith communities to attack poverty in the communities impacted the most by it. Yes we can.

Randall Brandt is an independent mediator and consultant. He was formerly Senior Advisor to the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom at the U.S. Department of State and Deputy Staff Director and Counsel for the Senate Republican Conference

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