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Last weekend I got to sit on a panel entitled “True Compassion Doesn't Come from D.C.: How Communities Are Addressing Poverty Better than Bureaucracies” at a conference of Washington State conservatives. It was humbling and inspiring to sit on the panel with Jeff Lilley, executive director of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. Jeff made one of the most powerful statements I’ve ever heard about poverty. “Homelessness is not a resources issue,” he said.

It is a relationships issue. Why are people homeless? Because they have broken relationships. And some of these guys who are in gangs don’t need more money thrown at them. What we need is to start throwing men at them. They need real, solid, life-giving relationships.

Poverty is a fundamentally personal issue. Beyond that, when it comes to rescuing people from the cycle of poverty, it is a fundamentally local issue. As Jeff put it, “It is a relationships issue.” It is an issue that ought to call forth the social capital of the community, not just of the government, but of the family, and where the family is estranged, of houses of worship, and where the community of faith does not extend its reach, of a network of associations that labor to engage businesses, churches, philanthropists, and volunteers young and old in the incredible work of offering the poor a chance in life.

Government can never replace this. Systems can never replace this. Resources, no matter their size, can never replace relationships.

In the 50th year of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, we are reminded of the failure of the resources-based/bureaucratic approach. National Review recently had a fine symposium on this topic. Stanley Carlson-Thies of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance wrote that President Johnson’s program

did not rightly address the non-economic dimensions. Civil society — especially families, neighborhoods, and religious charities — was bypassed. Worse, some government programs harmed rather than rejuvenated essential institutions — think of AFDC’s damage to married families, urban renewal’s uprooting of functioning neighborhoods, and secularizing government-funding requirements that either excluded religious charities from partnerships or undermined their full vigor.

And John Stonestreet of the Chuck Colson Center seemed to echo the point by Jeff Lilley. “[M]ost poverty in America isn’t, and wasn’t, of the financial kind,” wrote Stonestreet.

Most poor children, for example, are victims of relational poverty, familial poverty, moral poverty, or all three. As the government was fighting poverty with checks, divorce rates were skyrocketing, along with out-of-wedlock births and cohabitation. . . . The social and financial costs of family disintegration are incredible, and there were never enough checks to keep up.

Where do we go from here? What role do resources play? What role do relationships play?

First let’s acknowledge the role of resources in connection to relationships. That is, resources should leverage relationships. Government indeed has a role in leveraging relationships and creating incentives. There is much to be done on the policy front, and statesmen like Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and Eric Cantor are making the effort, incorporating poverty issues into their policies and messages. This is a very good and important development, since conservatives haven’t had much to say about poverty issues since President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. 

But as conservatives ought to acknowledge, most of the work to be done is beyond the halls of government, in the arena of civil society. It is true that we need to limit government, but when it comes to poverty, that’s not the main point. The main point is that we need strong families, churches, schools, voluntary associations—and alongside those relationship-based institutions of civil society, we need a thriving free enterprise economy that allows people to get jobs and create jobs.

Today, tremendous good is being done outside of the welfare bureaucracies. Philanthropists and volunteers are leveraging and cultivating relationships far more effectively than government.

In my hometown of Puyallup, Washington, the Puyallup Food Bank serves thousands of people each year. The St. Francis House meal program at the National Guard Armory serves 1,000 meals each month thanks to 30 teams of volunteers. About 2,400 households in East Pierce County benefit from clothing donated to St. Francis House each year, and hundreds of families in need receive items of furniture. A number of churches participate in Puyallup’s Freezing Nights program either by hosting homeless people in their sanctuaries and multipurpose halls or helping to transport the homeless to the host churches. As many as sixty people per night have been guests in Freezing Nights churches. Many of the 19,000 churchgoers in Puyallup’s 57 churches are the volunteers and donors who make these efforts possible.

These are the stories we need to tell and the things in which we ought to be involved.

Conservatives and their friends should be as visionary, as idealistic, as ambitious in their work in our communities as advocates for state welfare have been in their work in government. Let’s imagine what could happen if philanthropists, volunteers, churches, and nonprofits could do even more to build relationships and help the poor.

2 thoughts on “Relationships and the War on Poverty”

  1. Arnold says:

    Im obliged for the blog post.Really thank you! Will read on…

  2. Scott Allen says:

    Well said, and completely correct. Reminds me of an excellent book by Marvin Olasky, “The Tragedy of American Compassion.” Highly recommended.

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