Congress over the past decade has eliminated some of the negative by reforming welfare but has not accentuated the positive by shifting resources from failed bureaucracies to social entrepreneurs. Why?
A bit of history: Until the 1930s, poverty-fighters -- usually faith-based -- knew that compassion required both warm hearts and hard heads. They knew that anti-poverty programs worked only when local communities were actively involved, and that such programs were truly compassionate only when they stressed personal responsibility. New Deal programs initially emphasized work values as well, but over the years a spirit of entitlement grew.
From 1965 through 1995, Democrats expanded bureaucratic programs that merely kept people in poverty, and Republicans typically harrumphed that welfare cost too much. Then came a breakthrough: the realization that the major flaw of the modern welfare state is not its extravagance with money but its stinginess with the help that only a person can give: love, time, care and hope.
Welfare reform in 1996 was a great improvement, and many of us involved in that contest thought more was to come. Instead, senators and congressmen rested on their oars. That's because when it comes to poverty-fighting, Congress has had not two parties but three: compassionate conservatives who care about the poor, liberals who want to help the poor but ignore 20th century experience and social Darwinists who don't want to help.
Compassionate conservatives and social Darwinists, for different reasons, united to change the welfare system, but measures to help faith-based and community groups gained support only from the CCs, and that wasn't enough.
Now, four CC co-sponsors of the Senate Republican Poverty Alleviation Agenda -- Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Jim Talent of Missouri -- are fighting for a 12-part agenda that includes some excellent items:
-- Passage of the CARE Act, which would allow non-itemizers to deduct from income taxes their charitable contributions, encourage contributions from IRAs and other accounts, and provide incentives for food donations to those in need.
-- Welfare reform reauthorization, which (unless ruined by amendments) will continue the progress made possible by the 1996 legislation: Since then, welfare rolls are down by over 50 percent, millions have exchanged welfare checks for paychecks and fewer children are impoverished.
-- Passage or expansion of tax credits for companies that transport donated food, construct or refurbish homes affordable by low-income people or hire the poor. (Instead of adding specialized credits that merely counteract some of the disincentives created by existing law regulation, and litigation, Congress should pass a general tax credit for poverty-fighting donations from individual taxpayers, but that's unlikely to happen.)
-- Charitable liability reform to expand protection for contributors of vehicles and other equipment to nonprofits. (This is one area where we have seen legislative progress through measures such as the Volunteer Protection Act and the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.)
-- Creation of a commission that would review existing federal social service programs with the goal of expanding use of vouchers. Social service vouchers -- currently used in child care, housing and the new Access to Recovery program for drug treatment services -- increase consumer choice and minimize governmental pressure on faith-based groups to segment religious content from provision of services.
Two measures originating with CC members of the House of Representatives would also accent the positive. One is the education tax credit bill of Trent Franks, R-Ariz, that I wrote about two weeks ago, and the other is a resolution advanced by George Radanovich, R-Calif., to encourage Americans to increase the amount of our charitable giving from an average of 2 percent to 3 percent.
Will Congress act, or merely talk some more? Don't hold your breath, but you might expend some of it asking legislators neither to ignore poverty problems nor to throw money at them. The better way is to help the poor gain challenging, personal and often spiritual help.