Change, Not Charity: What Ails the New Left-Right Coalition Against Poverty

Yesterday another coalition of center-right Christians calling itself the Poverty Forum rolled out its multi-point plan aimed at lessening the toll of poverty in America. The Forum’s primary organizers, Sojourners founder Jim Wallis, former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, and PolicyLink founder Angela Glover Blackwell, claim that their approaches to key issue areas are embraced across the religious spectrum from left to right. The problem is that the spectrum they are talking about runs the gamut from A to B, if I may borrow Dorothy Parker’s apt formula. Conservatives on Poverty Forum issue panels were anything but shy in proclaiming their views victorious.

Brent Orrell, a conservative apparatchik long embedded in the Bush Administration’s faith-based operations, captured the essence of the new Forum’s anti-poverty platform thusly: “this package, when taken as a whole embodies the best and most timeless conservative ideas and principles. It focuses on the traditional family as the seedbed of virtue and education and economic participation.” Perhaps more revealing, Chuck Donovan of the Family Research Council beamed his own hearty approval for the work in this wise: “This is an opportunity to get attention for some ideas that might not be taken as seriously if they came directly from the Family Research Council.”

In fairness there are some significant policy changes in the package put forward by the centrists, but there is notably more emphasis on inculcating and reinforcing traditional values: changing destructive behaviors, for example, and focusing on family thrift (here rhetorically upgraded to “asset development”).

Only a churl would dismiss the Poverty Forum’s issues as unworthy. The problem is that they are so small-bore, so cautious, and so very deferential toward a regnant conservative ideology. We can’t really grasp the prophetic dimension that’s missing in the Poverty Forum without understanding something of the genesis and ubiquity of that conservative worldview.

What would values conservatives do without dysfunctional poor families?

For those too young to remember, there was in fact a brief shining moment some forty odd years ago when the public at large and the government of the United States recognized systemic and racialized poverty as a problem worth attacking directly. This was a moment of what liberation theologians would call conscientizacion. It grew out of the cresting civil rights struggle but was also ignited by some path-breaking journalism that drew attention to the hollows of pure misery in Appalachia and the harvest of shame enacted in California’s farm fields. While it was clumsy and crude for President Johnson to declare “war” on poverty, it is equally clear that his heart was in the right place on this—and that he really believed a massive public effort was required.

I mention this breakthrough moment so as to underscore the ideological and cultural sea change that now has most Americans once again thinking of poverty as a little bit cyclical, a little bit behavioral, not so much racial, and shameful only insofar as people should be kind of ashamed for remaining poor in view of all the help that is out there and available.

The sea change in how poverty is viewed reflects the triumph of a conservative ideology that long ago crossed party lines. I awakened fully to the bipartisan extent of the obfuscation and blame-shifting when I realized that the bulk of new philanthropy going on in New York in the 1990s—an interventionist philanthropy very much focused on support for the deserving poor—was being initiated by committed Democrats. One fast-rising new charity raised staggering amounts from hip young Democratic money managers at its annual galas. It spelled out its approach in big bold letters for all to see: no, we do NOT fund social change—but thanks very much for asking.

In this context the Gingrich-Clinton welfare “reform” of 1996 came as but the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace that had disappeared systemic poverty from the national consciousness, or had at least converted it from being the product of injustice and oppression to being instead the collective expression of a whole lot of bad individual choices made by the poor themselves.

We were back, in other words, to a moralizing Victorian sensibility. In most US cities, welfare caseload reduction and not the reduction of actual suffering and want became the measure of virtuous public policy. Welfare-to-work transition support operations functioned as the modern equivalent of Victorian workhouses, designed to instill exemplary behaviors like punctuality and better personal hygiene and grooming. Tough-on-dependency politicians, like New York’s Rudy Giuliani and Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson, were lionized in the big media while the voices of dissidents like Derrick Bell and Jonathan Kozol—people who actually paid attention to the worsening lives of the poor—were marginalized and dismissed.

This new Victorian consensus around poverty only hardened during the Bush years when the specter of terrorism gave us something else to worry about and when easy credit also helped mask the persistence of hardcore impoverishment. We were momentarily shocked (shocked!) to discover its persistence—and its persisting racialized character—in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. But for most that discovery merely reinforced the point that miserables like those Crescent City wretches should be dispersed and the evidence of their prior condition simply razed.

So many torn limb from limb—yet no enemies among the overprivileged?

Now, of course, poverty has come back into the public consciousness in a big way. This time the specter of poverty is haunting us—the hardworking middle-class folks being wiped out by the financial meltdown, the foreclosure tsunami, confiscatory health care expenses, and a plummeting job market. Along with fear, there is real anger in middle-class suburbs about the crimes and betrayals of the best and the brightest who ran the casino economy from their well-appointed Wall Street aeries—ran it right into the ground, that is—while parachuting to soft landings themselves.

But if you listen to the official talk of the nation—the talk of the politicians and pundits—you will not hear much of that populist anger. Intermittently, and for the TV cameras, you might be able hear a Sen. Dodd or a Sen. Schumer raise their voices in indignation over the predations and the self-dealing of the moneychangers. But then you remember that this is the same Chris Dodd who accepted two “courtesy” mortgages from Countrywide’s Anthony Mozillo, and that this is the same Chuck Schumer who backed Wall Street deregulation as he was collecting fat checks from the Street to fill the coffers of his Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

As for the new president and his team, it has already been made clear that the moneymen have nothing to fear from an Obama Administration. In the early sparring, Summers and Geithner successfully beat down the shocking idea that we might stop asking bankers to start lending and stop hiding bad assets—that we might use the public’s equity stake to force banks to serve the public interest. Thanks to the continuing sway of Rubinomics, the Obama-Geithner approach to the banking sector has been all but indistinguishable from its Bush-Paulson predecessor. Want bold action to address the foreclosure and bankruptcy plagues at the grassroots level? Last week all Tim Geithner could say to an anxious Main Street was stay tuned, we’ll get to you later.

The reality is that what Kevin Phillips and others call the financialization of the US economy over two decades amounts to much more than an economic phenomenon. Our politics have also become thoroughly financialized—colonized by the ideas and values of the monied elite. Thus, theft or major malfeasance on the part of members of that same elite turn into mere “mistakes” or “excesses.” I needn’t multiply examples of how this works. Call it the soft bigotry of lowered expectations for our social superiors. Poor Tom Daschle: screwed by his small-town accountant, etc.

This inclination to be deferential toward a corrupted system and toward its beneficiaries extends as well to consensus-minded religious leaders who wade into the public policy arena. It is so easy to call for behavioral changes, including sanctions for the noncompliant, when those in need of redemption are poor and powerless; much harder to demand behavioral changes when those whose ways need the most serious mending are the wealthy and powerful. So while it is perpetually depressing to see the Democrats drinking the Kool-Aid of No Enemies Among The Privileged, it actually turns the stomach a bit to see faith leaders who claim to care about the poor slurping up the same reality-free brew and proclaiming, essentially, that there are really No Enemies On The Religious Right and, by extension, No Enemies On The Political Right.

Memo to religious middlers: God actually does take sides

In recent years Jim Wallis has made himself the leading exemplar of what we might call the No Enemies On The Right viewpoint among religious celebrities.

Wallis achieved his considerable celebrity by insisting that God is neither a Democrat nor or a Republican, which is a true but rather trifling thing to say and which obscures the fact that God stands so strongly on the side of the poor that those who oppress God’s poor people make themselves into God’s enemies. The God of the Hebrew prophets and the God of Jesus Christ is very much a partisan of the poor.

I have no doubt that both Wallis is genuinely disturbed by the blighted dreams and acute daily sufferings experienced by the millions of Americans living in poverty’s shadow. He once led a sit-in at the Capitol over brutal cuts in funding for poor people. Sincerity is not at issue here.

But it seems to me that faith leaders who claim to be informed by the prophetic tradition must maintain some critical distance from an unholy consensus politics that lets massive injustice and oppression flourish in plain sight while barely pretending to address the plight of the poor at the margins. Not to stand apart risks turning today’s faith leaders into chaplains to unjust power of the kind bitterly denounced by Jeremiah: “from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely: they have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

Wallis likes to tell people that he knows everyone who is anyone among the great and the good in Washington, regardless of political persuasion. He has become a consummate inside player. He hasn’t a negative thing to say about anyone, except perhaps when it comes to “shrill” leftists who question why, especially at this moment, we should still be so eager to accommodate hardcore Christian conservatives.

To be clear, I am not for demonizing individuals unnecessarily or for discerning and denouncing enemies where none exist. But poor people DO have enemies, and among their worst enemies are conservative religious figures who cannot wean themselves from Reaganite free-market ideology, who cannot distinguish change from charity, and who still think that making poor women bear children for calamity (cf. Isaiah 65:23) somehow conduces to God’s greater glory. To kowtow to these enemies of the poor merely grants them yet more undeserved power and legitimacy.

I am very glad that Jim Wallis and others like him want to put fighting poverty front and center in the consciousness of the faithful. But fighting poverty in any serious way is a partisan enterprise that means fighting oppressive structures and entrenched interests. It means breaking with blurry consensus politics as usual. It most certainly means having enemies on the Right and even enemies in a Middle that would be clearly recognized as the Right in any non-U.S. context.

Here, for example, is a faith-inspired policy platform that would leave the religious right seething but would rally tens of thousands of religious progressives: in the name of all that is holy, we demand universal health care, a tenfold expansion of Section 8 housing, a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures, full workplace rights, full funding of women’s health care services, radically progressive tax reform, greatly expanded higher education access for poor kids, major structural reforms in our racist criminal justice program (not just re-entry assistance), a severe crackdown on predatory lending, and major child care and transportation subsidies for working mothers of young children.

Wallis often cites the late William Sloane Coffin as a major inspiration and influence in his own life. No one could say more in fewer words than Bill Coffin, so I think Bill should have the last word here. It’s a word that cannot be repeated often enough to those who enjoy frequenting the corridors of consensus that mark today’s Washington DC: “If you lessen your anger at the structures of power, you lower your love for the victims of power.”