There was a time when being an advocate for the poor meant going out and actually working with the poor. Today, it is just as likely to mean working for a nonprofit organization that fights for more taxpayer money for federal anti-poverty programs. Thus, in 1995, when a group of these anti-poverty advocates organized a rally on behalf of their beloved programs, grandiosely called The Stand for Children, political analyst Kenneth Weinstein remarked in the New York Times, “I really think that this march should actually be called ‘The march of the social service administrators.’”
Thanks to these administrators, the federal government has spent more than $7 trillion on anti-poverty programs since the War on Poverty began in 1965, with only a marginal impact in eradicating poverty in America.
The failure of our current approach compared to the previous model is the central point of What Makes Charity Work, an anthology of essays on poverty from the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. The anthology, compiled by City Journal editor Myron Magnet, contains twelve essays, all of which examine the question of combating poverty, but from three different perspectives: which kinds of charity have worked, which have failed, and which could work in the future.
The section of the book dealing with our current failures is the most depressing. In addition to the familiar story of the federal government squandering trillions with little to show but misguided incentives, the indefatigable Heather Mac Donald explains how private foundations like the Ford Foundation wasted billions of additional dollars encouraging the creation of these federal anti-poverty programs.
What’s worse, she shows that these same foundations, even when faced with reams of evidence regarding the failures of the system, have redoubled their spending in order to resist commonsense reforms.
An essay on the proliferation of pro bono cases among lawyers shows that all too many lawyers pursue litigation designed to expand the welfare state through extra-political means. Mac Donald describes one lawyer who takes such cases with an intent to make new law. According to the lawyer, “Personally, I don’t like politics. It’s really hard.” At the same time that law partners practically bully their attorneys into taking cases that protect or expand the welfare state, firms bristle at allowing attorneys to take pro bono cases in favor of welfare reform or color-blind employment and admission policies.
In a third essay, Mac Donald chronicles how something as innocuous as the New York Times’s compilation of the city’s “neediest cases” has been tarred by politics. While the list was once used to publicize the plight of truly needy families, the Times has changed its tune, refusing to highlight families placed in poverty by bad luck or circumstance. As Mac Donald discerns the agenda in this policy change, it is to deny that welfare can serve as a trap, to disparage reform as mean-spirited, and to deny the role of free will in combating poverty.
In contrast to the failures, the book describes the traditional forms of American charity that have worked in the past. As Magnet writes in the introduction, traditional American charity “stressed the skills and the attitudes of self-reliance and personal responsibility. Their absence, philanthropists believed, was the principal cause of chronic poverty.”
In the first two chapters, William Stern tells the tale of the Catholic Protectory for poor children in New York and of anti-poverty activist “Dagger” John Joseph Hughes, the first Catholic Archbishop of New York.
These two anti-poverty institutions—and Dagger John was very much an institution in New York—were successful both at fighting poverty and encouraging personal responsibility, and the fact that both came out of the Catholic Church is not lost on the authors. Religion has been conspicuously absent from federal anti-poverty efforts for the past three decades, and that absence has harmed the cause.
Fortunately, there is some movement to return religion to the war on poverty, in part through a program called charitable choice, an innovation that allows local institutions—including religious organizations—to compete for federal anti-poverty funds. In bringing faith-based groups into the war on poverty, charitable choice allows input from those closest to the problems and also helps re-inject a sense of responsibility back into anti-poverty efforts.
Charitable choice is not without its dangers. As Brian Anderson shows in his essay “How Catholic Charities Lost Its Soul,” religious institutions lose their effectiveness if they sacrifice their character in exchange for federal funds.
Anderson tells the alarming tale of a priest who was interviewed for a position at Catholic Charities. When asked his position on issues like homosexuality and abortion, the priest replied that he opposed such behaviors, in accordance with church teaching. At this point his interviewer explained that “we get government funds, so we are not Catholic.”
As Anderson shows, however, many of the problems at Catholic Charities stem from the organization’s persistent leftward migration over the years and had nothing to do with the relatively recent charitable choice provisions.
Charitable choice is part of the new wave of anti-poverty programs—programs that learn from the failures of the recent past—and emphasize personal responsibility as the principal engine for lifting people out of poverty. As this volume capably documents, America should welcome this recent new thinking on poverty. It comes not a moment too soon.
Tevi Troy is former policy director for Senator John Ashcroft and is currently writing a book about intellectuals in the White House for Rowman and Littlefield.