Oetting: The Cure for Poverty Is Right Next Door

April 6, 2016

by Patrick Oetting

(April 6) — Historically, the less fortunate in the United States have depended on their neighbors, local churches and civic institutions for the extra care needed to make ends meet. This approach embodies the notion of “subsidiarity,” which the Cambridge English Dictionary defines as, “the principle that decisions should always be taken at the lowest possible level or closest to where they will have their effect, for example in a local area rather than for a whole country.”

Alexis de Tocqueville saw this strong civil society present in American culture when he first visited the United States in 1831. He rightly pointed out then that it is precisely what made America exceptional.

Over the past century, our society has traded these communal social ties in favor of a welfare system that requires heavy state involvement. The correlation between government involvement in the welfare system and the decline of civil society is no coincidence. As central authorities, characterized by a striking lack of local knowledge, hand-down aid, the need for community involvement decreases. As a result, charity becomes less and less personal.

And government intervention is not the only problem. Private giving has also become less effective over the past half a century. Dr. Marvin Olasky, the social reformer, states: “The crisis of the modern welfare state is a crisis of government, but it is more than that. Too many private charities and foundations dispense aid on the basis of what feels good rather than what works; they end up providing, instead of points of light, alternative shades of darkness.”

A century ago, charities practiced a high amount of discernment. Inherent knowledge of local situations afforded them the wherewithal to resist laying blanket solutions on unique problems. I love these two quotes from the New Orleans Charity Organization Society: “Intelligent giving and intelligent withholding are alike true charity” and “If drink has made a man poor, money will feed him not, but his drunkenness.”

Though both statements were made in 1899, we have much to learn from them today. They remind us that if we do not dispense our charity carefully, we could easily perpetuate —or worse, exacerbate — our social problems.

The way to reduce this trend and break systemic cycles of poverty is to reduce the role of the state and return to the principle that still works as well as it did in 1831 — subsidiarity, that is, let those closest to the issue, such as churches and private charities, determine the needs in their community before we allow state involvement.

Again, we now have a federal government that has largely crowded out private charities. As Russell Roberts states, “. . . with the dramatic increase in public aid during the Great Depression, which began in late 1929, private charities were ‘crowded out.’ They could no longer successfully compete for donations with a federal government that could compel ‘donations’ via the tax system.”

If government were to reduce its role — or at least slow the growth of programs — churches and private charities could in turn fully assume the role that they were created for, i.e., to help those in their community. Some argue that this may result in less money dedicated to the poor. I counter that any reduction would be offset by the targeted nature of the benefits. Subsidiarity works because locals have access to specifically local information. Benefits are designed specifically to address the specific needs of specific people in a specific community. Simply put, local givers give more efficient gifts — especially when compared with the current, bloated, top-down approach in which one size is assumed to fit all.

In addition, it’s harder to fool your neighbor than a stranger you’ll never see again. Thus, subsidiarity provides fewer chances for fraud and abuse. The many layers of the state and federal charity bureaucracy serve only to identify and prosecute fraud could be dramatically diminished.

Robert Woodson, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE), has developed an innovative approach to identifying potential “change-agents” already embedded in poverty-stricken communities. I like to call his method, subsidiarity in practice.

When CNE enters a community they invert the questions commonly asked by scholars, government employees and many professional non-profiteers. CNE does not ask, “How many children have dropped out of school, committed a crime, or succumb to drug addiction?” Rather, it asks, “Who has raised children who have not dropped out of school, committed crime or succumb to drug addiction?” Once CNE identifies these families, it educates and trains them so they can take a leadership role and positively influence their community. The result is true and lasting community transformation from the inside out.

When individuals take control of their own development — serve as protagonists in their own story — lives are changed for the better. But for this sort of development to take hold we need to ensure that our charity and aid efforts are supporting rather than undermining local institutions. We need to place our social focus on subsidiarity.

Are we satisfied with our current welfare system, with the allocation of large sums to projects that promise results they almost never deliver? Are we satisfied with giving over our right to help our neighbor to a government that has seen little change in the number of fellow Americans living in poverty?

I believe the majority would say no. The majority recognizes that the U.S. poverty rate has not declined since Lyndon B. Johnson started the war on poverty more than five decades ago. The majority recognizes that far away efforts have failed where local initiative once succeeded.

We need to move away from a government that engages in paternalistic giving and return to a system that puts the power in the hands of those closest to the problem. Just as Robert Woodson is putting into practice in communities around the U.S., I’m confident that lives will be transformed, but only if we get out of our own way.

Patrick Oetting, a Fort Wayne native, is the Strategy and Engagement Manager for the PovertyCure initiative at the Acton Institute. He travels across the United States and Latin America speaking on this issue. Contact him at poetting@povertycure.org.


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