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Pablo Eisenberg, senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, got attention in the nonprofit world last week when he wrote in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “In the last decade or so, nonprofits have stopped caring about the plight of the poor.” By this, Eisenberg only means that nonprofits have not exerted the anti-poverty lobbying power in Congress that they once did.

But—the nonprofit sector does not exist to lobby. It actually exists to care about the plight of the poor, and it often does a better job of this than government. Thousands of nonprofits, large and small, do a fine job of caring, some in partnership with government, others independently. Nonprofits forge links with families, churches, businesses, and other voluntary associations of all kinds to serve the communities they share. Whatever is to be said of the nonprofit sector, it cannot be said that it has ceased to care.

It would be equally wrong to say that either liberals or conservatives don’t care. A 2012 study by two MIT political scientists shows that conservatives and liberals give to charities at about the same level, though conservatives give more to faith-based organizations and liberals give more to secular organizations.

All of us can do more to eradicate poverty in America. This is truly a challenge for all of us, liberal and conservative, secular and religious.

But it should come as a special challenge to conservatives, who find themselves tasked with the political defense of civil society. Conservatives should be as enthusiastic about the possibilities of civil society in addressing poverty as they are about limiting government.

Not since President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships have conservatives had much to say about poverty. Congressman Paul Ryan has been among the few to break the silence. His Cleveland speech on poverty on October 24, 2012, was one of the most significant speeches of that election year. He talked about the failures of the “war on poverty.” And he acknowledged the trouble Republicans have in talking about poverty:

Our party does a good job of speaking to the part of the American Dream that involves taking what you’re passionate about and making a successful living from it. But part of what makes America great is that when we don’t succeed, we look out for one another through our communities. My party has a vision for making our communities stronger – but we don’t always do a good job of laying out that vision.

He added:

The short of it is that there has to be a balance – allowing government to act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do.  There’s a vast middle ground between the government and the individual.  Our families and our neighborhoods, the groups we join and our places of worship – this is where we live our lives.  They shape our character, give our lives direction, and help make us a self-governing people.

Ryan cited his mentor, the late Jack Kemp, as an inspiration for his thinking.

More recently, Ryan has called on Republicans to “launch an effort with open minds and open hearts on how best to attack the root cause of poverty” and to “restore upward mobility in America.”

Conservatives should follow Ryan’s lead and make support for civil society to help the poor part of their core political message.  

In my own Washington State, author and PR strategist Todd Myers wants to change public perceptions about Republicans’ care for the poor. He has assembled a group of Republican leaders and donors behind the Northwest Republican Community Fund. According to its website, “The NW Republican Community Fund provides support to organizations designed to help people become self-sufficient, improve their education, free those trapped by poverty and crime and leave a legacy that respects Washington’s great lifestyle.” The Fund distributes gifts to ten nonprofits, including groups that aid the homeless, people with disabilities, low-income families with children, foster children, and victims of human trafficking.

I attended the Fund’s kickoff reception a few weeks ago at a winery in Woodinville. Republican activists networked with nonprofit representatives and heard Myers’s vision for the fund. As the Northwest Republican Community Fund website says, “Across the Northwest, Republicans understand that to make the lives of people better means giving of ourselves, helping our neighbors and taking personal responsibility rather than waiting for others to help. Rather than hoping Olympia or Washington D.C. will find solutions, we contribute directly in large and small ways.”

More of this needs to happen soon. Americans in general not only care deeply about helping the poor, they want to be assured that the political movements care too. Efforts like Paul Ryan’s and the Northwest Republican Community Fund are not only important in our country’s common ambition to eradicate poverty, they are critical to the future success of the conservative movement.

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