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When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney notoriously announced that he is “not concerned about the very poor” because “we have a safety net there,” he overlooked forty years of conservative efforts to do more for the poor than just providing a meager federal safety net. If Republicans have any hope of electing a president in 2012, it is urgent that they return to the conservative poverty-fighting tradition, and make it a centerpiece of their political message.

That tradition originated in the late 20th century with the work of sociologists Robert Nisbet and Peter Berger, theologians Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus, writers Richard Cornuelle and Marvin Olasky, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, and activist Robert Woodson. They argued that America’s poor were trapped between two failed ideological approaches to their problems.

On the one hand, liberalism offered only top-down, bureaucratic “safety net” programs that ensnared as many low-income people as it saved. On the other hand, conservatism was content with exhortations to “lift yourself up by the bootstraps,” reflecting its devotion to rugged individualism.

Neither ideology, in their view, paid sufficient attention to social institutions standing between the state and the individual, the “intermediate associations” of family, neighborhood, religious congregation, and ethnic and voluntary association. Only these small, tightly knit communities could inculcate moral and political virtues like self-discipline, perseverance, and personal responsibility that the poor would need for productive work and public-spirited citizenship.

Ronald Reagan picked up on this new conservative approach with his call for “an end to giantism, for a return to the human scale, the scale of the local fraternal lodge, the church organization, the block club, the farm bureau,” followed by the launch of a private sector initiatives task force early in his presidency.

George H. W. Bush continued the theme with his vision of a “thousand points of light,” while his son George W. Bush’s doctrine of “compassionate conservatism” sought to mobilize faith-based organizations against poverty.

These three Republicans became president. Those candidates who did not, by contrast, conspicuously failed to embrace and celebrate America’s vibrant tradition of voluntary associations. Only conservatives with a well-developed message about the voluntary sector’s central role in battling poverty have been able to deflect liberalism’s relentless characterization of them as crabbed, mean-spirited Scrooges, unworthy to govern a compassionate people.

Over the years, the conservative approach to poverty has become increasingly nuanced and sophisticated. Reagan’s task force quickly deteriorated into a foolish squabble over whether corporate giving could “make up the difference” after cuts in federal spending. George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism, by contrast, sought to expand the range of nonprofits eligible for government funding, including smaller, grassroots religious groups, if it could be done without compromising the flexibility and intense spiritual conviction that made them successful.

Openness to government funding, however, ultimately left “compassionate conservatism” in bad odor among many Republicans, in an era when shrinking government has become the top priority. That helps explain why no current conservative presidential candidate has been eager to pick up the argument for community-based approaches to poverty, in spite of its proven electoral track record.

But some of the blame for compassionate conservatism’s eclipse must lie as well with funders of conservative political and charitable causes, as I argued in a recent piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The growing sophistication of the conservative approach to poverty owed much to foundations and individuals of wealth who were willing to fund the thought and action behind civil society’s fight against poverty.

My employer during the 90s, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, funded everything from prominent scholars wrestling with the big-picture challenges of civic renewal, right down to grants of several thousand dollars each for a wide array of small, struggling faith-based groups that best exemplified the potency of civil society.

Few conservative grantmakers still fund this sort of work. In a time when nonprofits operate ever closer to the political line, funders are more attracted to sharp-elbowed, anti-government activists deeply immersed in the policy scrum. Employing tactics more suitable to partisan campaigns than policy deliberation, they promise to deliver quick and tangible political results to impatient funders.

There’s nothing wrong with this, so long as serious attention is also given to what comes next for the poor, after top-down federal programs are reduced. But that’s missing right now from the conservative agenda.

A group of wealthy conservative business executives in Denver recently showed how to remedy this deficiency. While they are second to none in their devotion to cutting government, they also realize that this imposes a special obligation on them to support the private voluntary agencies working with the poor.

One of their favorites is Step 13, a small, scruffy drug and alcohol rehabilitation center run by recovering alcoholic Bob Coté. Each of them has visited Step 13 often, becoming personally acquainted with his effective work and good stewardship, admiring his reliance on personal spiritual transformation rather than expensive, government-funded therapy.

When Coté was faced with a sudden need to purchase his rented space, the businessmen quickly dropped off unsolicited but substantial checks. “All the mean-spirited, right-wing conservatives raised more than the million and half we needed to buy the building and they decided to let us use the extra money to bring the building up to code. God bless them,” Coté noted to me.

Wealthy conservatives across the country should follow this example.  Proponents of reducing government spending for the poor must go beyond empty pronouncements, and become directly and immediately engaged with the best grassroots poverty-fighters in their own backyards.

They can convincingly argue that civil society will adequately address the problems of the poor only so long as they understand that they are themselves critical engines of civil society.

Curiously, conservative funders who take great care in their political contributions often do exactly the opposite with their charitable giving, absent-mindedly dashing off obligatory checks to the largest and most prominent nonprofits. They don’t seem to realize that some of those nonprofits spend a great deal of time lobbying government not to cut spending. They in effect cancel out their political giving with their charitable giving.

But it’s not hard to find the kinds of nonprofits that best capture the conservative civil society tradition. Bob Woodson’s Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (full disclosure: I’m on the board), Manhattan Institute’s Social Entrepreneurship Initiative, and Barbara Elliott’s Center for Renewal are all intermediary organizations that identify, train, and steer funders to grassroots civic enterprises.

In addition, every conservative state and federal legislator should become thoroughly familiar with at least a dozen grassroots leaders like Bob Coté within his or her own district, thereby demonstrating that the argument for civil society is a grounded and informed conviction rather than just a smokescreen for shrinking government. Indeed, legislators should seek ways (within the law) to bring together promising grassroots groups with their own financial backers, serving as a civic switchboard for funders and recipients.

Finally, of course, it will be necessary for the Republican presidential nominee himself to return to the civil society tradition for an approach to poverty more constructive than mere reliance on the safety net.

One of today’s GOP contenders -- former Senator Rick Santorum -- has spoken passionately in the past about the need to construct a “coherent conservative agenda for low-income Americans.” He did so in It Takes a Family (2005), drawing on his own Catholic faith’s doctrine of “subsidiarity,” the “principle that all social challenges should be addressed at the level of the smallest social unit possible.”

But ironically, no one can claim more direct, hands-on experience with faith-based poverty work than Mitt Romney. As the bishop for the Belmont, Massachusetts, ward of the Mormon Church from 1981 to 1985, he was energetically and personally engaged in helping his congregants deal with hardship.

One who benefited from his efforts recalled for the Los Angeles Times that “Mitt was the one who really stood out. He was always caring about my family, my wife, my children. He taught me how to keep my family together.” Indeed, the Mormon Church runs a private welfare effort for its poorer members that is a spectacular example of the compassionate conservative approach, providing the help needed for all comers, while steering recipients toward self-sufficiency.

So far, Romney has been reluctant to talk about these experiences, perhaps out of concern that it will only draw attention to a church affiliation that some may find off-putting. But he will have to do better, if he wishes to overcome the damage done by his “don’t care about the poor” remark. The conservative tradition of compassion expressed through voluntary associations -- a tradition that includes the full variety of religious affiliations -- provides the framework for that discussion.

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