Redeming Troubled Lives and Communities: Why Spiritually Driven Programs Work Best
At the Republican National Convention last month, Bob Dole declared that he was the “most optimistic man in America.” This was quite a claim insofar as Jack Kemp was in the same room at the time. Yet with all due respect to the newly paired Sunshine Boys of national politics, a convincing case can be made that the most optimistic man in the United States is really the author of this oral essay, Robert L. Woodson, Sr.
To be more specific, no one over the last generation has spoken and written with greater confidence — not even Mr. Kemp — about the inherent strength and potential of low-income Americans than Mr. Woodson. No one has more persuasively imagined what others often assume to be inconceivable about our inner cities.
I should admit here to being one of those skeptics myself, as I frequently just don’t know if Bob’s optimism is justified given the sadness and chaos in so much of our country. But this much I can say: All surely would be lost in urban America without beacons of plausible hope such as my good friend and colleague, Bob Woodson.
The following paper, “Redeeming Troubled Lives and Communities: Why Spiritually Driven Programs Work Best,” is based on his remarks to a Tim Penny-Vin Weber Distinguished Fellows symposium in March, the kickoff to Vin and Tim’s 1996 American Experiment emphasis on “Religion in Minnesota’s Public Square.” In simplest terms, they are focusing this year on how society can take greater advantage of our religious traditions and institutions while fully respecting American variety and the Constitution.
As the title of both that event and this paper suggests, I had asked Bob to talk about why religiously imbued social service programs generally seem more effective than governmental ones in turning around often severely troubled lives and communities. Here’s a sampling of what he had to say:
[T]he kind of poverty that concerns us most is the kind that emanates not just from external circumstances, but from internal crisis. Poverty is not just a crisis of consumer capacity. Often the poor’s needs go beyond food and shelter. Theirs is a crisis of the spirit. Spiritual poverty cannot be addressed through secular programs alone, because secular questions are not the origin of the problem.
Likewise, he said:
We must end the hostility toward faith-based organizations, because they alone have the cure to our societal crisis. You don’t, I must emphasize, have to embrace the religion or the specific faith of an organization in order to appreciate what it can do.
Coupled with this line of argument is a crisp critique of what Mr. Woodson labels the “Poverty Pentagon,” as well as a call for greater reliance on measurable performance — in the spirit of the marketplace, one might say — in gauging the success of anti-poverty ventures. Actually, along with Michael Novak, I don’t know anyone who better demonstrates how principles of capitalism and faith can be made to complement one another when the task at hand is helping people in need. The paper concludes with an extended section of questions from our audience of about 200 that morning.
A social worker by training and a civil rights advocate from the 1950s onward, Mr. Woodson is founder and long-time president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. He also continues as an original member of American Experiment’s Board of Advisors, for which I’m grateful.
But more to the pertinent heart, this is what Mr. Weber — also an old friend of Bob’s — had to say in introducing him: “This is a person who has had an almost unique impact on policymakers specifically and on American life more generally, because he challenges people who aren’t doing so to think about hard problems.”
I would only amend Vin’s salute by noting that Bob also is pretty good at challenging people who think about hard problems a lot.
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Thanks very much, and as always, I very much welcome your comments.
Mitchell B. Pearlstein
Vin Weber: Bob Woodson has had a tremendous impact on me, as well as on more people in the public policy arena than I can imagine. I have to tell you this little story about my own background.
When I was in my earliest years in Congress, I had a young lady working for me who was a farm girl from one of the most ethnically Scandinavian townships in rural Minnesota. Well, she fell in love with a young Jewish boy in Washington, and they got married. Just before they were married — I should add here that she was the youngest child in the family, with her father actually in his mid- to late-70s — I remember sitting down with them and some of their friends and talking about this unusual phenomenon: a Scandinavian Lutheran girl marrying a Jewish boy.
One of the neighbors said that she could remember the first time a Lutheran girl married a Catholic boy. What a big deal that was.
The mother then said she could beat that, as she could remember the first time a Scandinavian Lutheran girl married a German Lutheran boy from the neighboring township.
At which point, dad, who was the oldest guy at the table, sort of quietly said that he could remember the first time a Norwegian Lutheran boy married a Swedish Lutheran girl.
This, I must report, was my notion of ethnic diversity until I met Bob Woodson.
I, along with a lot of other people, have been taken places by Bob Woodson that most Republicans haven’t known existed, didn’t want to think existed and, most sadly of all, didn’t care if they existed. This truly is a person who has changed the thinking of lots and lots of people on lots and lots of issues.
My first real experience in which he literally took me to a place I didn’t know existed was when he took a group of Republican members of Congress to the Kennilworth neighborhood in Washington. We met a woman named Kimi Gray, who was not interested in complaining to us about the inadequacy of federal subsidies, but who wanted to talk about the virtues of home ownership for poor people. That’s the kind of issue that Bob Woodson has proselytized on all around this nation.
His organization for some 15-plus years has been the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. If I might say so, that’s just a front group. What it really does is allow Bob to go all around the country talking on behalf of any program that empowers poor people, as well as to preach to a lot of rich white people about their responsibilities.
This is a person who has had an almost unique impact on policymakers specifically and on American life more generally, because he challenges people who aren’t doing so to think about hard problems. He quickly deconstructs all the traditionally liberal, paternalist notions about how middle-class and rich white people ought to deal with poor people, mainly poor people of color. And he talks, of course, about the inherent value, worth and spirit of people who live in poor neighborhoods — and of harnessing that spirit in solving problems.
So it is a tremendous pleasure for me to introduce somebody who is a dear friend, a tremendous influence, and truly a national leader, our friend Bob Woodson.
Bob Woodson: Many thanks, Vin. I was raised to believe that 80 percent of all black folks are Baptist and if anyone is black and isn’t a Baptist that means someone has been messing with them. That’s my definition of diversity.
I remember when Vin and Newt Gingrich were new to Congress and they came and asked me to instruct them about low-income neighborhoods. I suggested that they should go to low-income housing projects and conduct hearings there, not asking about the deficiencies of residents, but about their strengths: how they were able to expel drug addicts; how they were able to motivate young people to go to college; how they were able to reduce teen pregnancy; and about the standards and values which determined these successes.
We got on a bus and went to Kennilworth Parkside in D.C., and all of the local television stations were stunned that these white Republicans were sitting with low-income blacks in public housing asking them about their strengths. And the people responded. And I remember that Democrats felt obliged two weeks later to get on a bus and go down there, because they had been upstaged by these Young Turks.
It’s difficult sometimes to explain the grass-roots achievements I have witnessed in my life; I have to bring people to low-income neighborhoods so that they can see what I see. That’s what the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise has been about.
There is a prayer that I try to utter each day that I commend to you, which I offer before any speech: “Lord, give me the wisdom and the strength to tell and pursue the truth, especially when it is inconvenient to me.” Because if this nation is to avoid a collision with its future, it must engage in honest self-inquiry and self-criticism.
Dr. Martin Luther King called this self-evaluation the highest form of maturity. If you want to go someplace you have never been, then it is important to do some things you’ve never done. Or to put it another way, if you keep doing what you do, you keep getting what you got.
Given an absence of self-criticism and the reluctance of many of today’s leaders to go beyond old solutions, it is not surprising that Pat Buchanan or Louis Farrakhan have attracted such a great following. The people who vote for Pat Buchanan are not brown-shirted bigots, nor are the young men who came to the Million Man March anti-Semites just because Louis Farrakhan called them. Both Buchanan and Farrakhan, representing two extremes, are speaking to the deep pain and frustration of many people; pain and frustration that “leaders” in the middle are not addressing.
If we do not wish people to follow demagogues on the left or the right, it is important to offer an alternative vision, because people are motivated to change and improve on the basis of victories they see as possible. We have to give people a vision to believe in. But, before we do that, it’s important for us to be honest about what we have done to the poor of this nation.
“From ambulance service to transportation system”
Before the Great Depression, the informal institutions of family, church and neighborhood took care of their own. Each ethnic group had its own informal support system. In the black community, the church was the bedrock of our institutions. It was our welfare system, our insurance industry. But with the crisis of the 1930s, government intervened and formally took over many of the functions of these community institutions. Government intervention was to be temporary, but what started out as an ambulance service to rescue those in crisis developed into an entire transportation system.
A major shift then occurred in the 1960s. Instead of sending money directly to the people who were in need, the government began channeling the money to service providers who, in turn, provided services to the poor. For the past 30 years, we have seen a $5 trillion industry evolve around the issue of poverty. Currently, 70 percent to 80 percent of the money goes not to the poor, but to those who serve the poor.
The poverty industry does not place a high priority on solving poverty. Service providers don’t ask which problems are solvable, but which ones are fundable. They are not accountable to those they serve — their clients — but to their funders. And they are not rewarded for raising people out of poverty, but for the number of people who need their service. So the poor have been trapped in dependency and injured by the helping hand.
It’s difficult to challenge this industry — this Poverty Pentagon — because the people who work within it are not all evil people. Many have the best intentions. But it has been said that when someone comes running to you with your best interests at heart, you’d better run for your life. People may be well-intentioned, but institutions can cause good men and women to do bad things. Even if they wanted to change and be helpful to people, institutional practices prevent them from providing the kind of services they might want to provide.
And another event of the ’60s has had its impact on the poor. The poverty industry was conceived in the same womb as the civil rights movement, and the moral authority of one became associated with the other. Criticizing poverty programs has been equated with undermining civil rights. In addition, blacks are disproportionately represented in the ranks of the poverty industry. It’s very interesting to note that while two out of 10 whites with a college education work for government, six out of 10 blacks with college training work for government. Blacks have become caretakers of the poor in areas of government service, reinforcing the notion that civil rights is synonymous with strategies to address poverty.
As a consequence, anytime there’s an effort to reform government programs, the first people to speak up in opposition are the national civil rights organizations. For instance, civil rights leaders oppose proposals for vouchers in education even though poll after poll indicates that at least 70 percent of blacks who know about vouchers and choice in education overwhelmingly support them. The so-called leaders of the black community are in opposition because they have proprietary interests that are at variance with the interests of the poor. Yet we refuse to challenge these leaders and organizations because we are intimidated by charges of racism.
What are the results?
We have a huge poverty industry, but what are its results? In my city of Washington, D.C., we top the nation in per-capita expenditure in about 20 categories of social service delivery, including education, yet our school system ranks among the worst when it comes to outcome and performance. But none of our teachers are fired for incompetence. Meanwhile, 82 percent of Washington, D.C.’s public school teachers with school-age children do not send their kids to those schools. Eighty-two percent!
Jesse Jackson does not send his child to those schools. Marian Wright Edelman does not send her child to those schools. Franklin Smith, our superintendent, withdrew his child from the schools two years ago.
If General Motors was promoting its cars on television while 82 percent of its employees drove Toyotas, General Motors would be driven from the marketplace. But this kind of moral inconsistency is tolerated in the human service area. There is something wrong.
What are the solutions? Unfortunately, we are locked in a bipolar debate between the left and the right that never touches the real issues. People on the left tend to believe that all we have to do is spend another $5 trillion on the same failed, professionally driven programs and parachute more alien solutions into poor communities with the expectation that people will be saved. They think compassion can be measured by how much we spend. Conservatives, on the other hand, say we should cut the failed programs and let meritocracy determine winners and losers. There is an old African proverb that when bull elephants fight, the grass always loses.
Where do we find the remedies? First of all, we will not find them in economic incentives. Liberals want to spend more money on the same failed programs. That won’t work. Conservatives talk about economic incentives. Home ownership tax breaks and other such incentives are important, but they are insufficient to provide us with the solutions we are looking for.
If lack of economic incentives alone were the problem with this society, tell me why our civil society didn’t go to hell in a hand basket during the 10 years of the Depression, when this nation had a negative GNP, a 25 percent overall unemployment rate, and a 50-percent unemployment rate in the black community? You didn’t see social disintegration in spite of economic troubles because our families and communities were held together by strong value-generating institutions in our neighborhoods. But the poverty of today is different than the poverty of the Depression.
You cannot generalize about poor people. There are people who are poor because they lack opportunity: a manufacturing plant has moved, a breadwinner has died. These people use the welfare system the way it was intended, as a temporary bridge through troubled times.
But the kind of poverty that concerns us most is the kind that emanates not just from external circumstances, but from internal crisis. Poverty is not just a crisis in consumer capacity. Often the poor’s needs go beyond food and shelter. Theirs is a crisis of the spirit. Spiritual poverty cannot be addressed through secular programs alone, because secular questions are not the origin of the problem.
Where to turn?
Where do we look for cures? Rachel and Donald Warren from the University of Michigan went into low-income neighborhoods and asked people where they turn in times of crisis and trouble. They said first they turn to family members, then they turn to friends, then they turn to their local church, their ethnic subgroup — all institutions within their immediate environment. The eighth institution they would turn to is a professional service provider.
We tend to deliver services through the institution of last choice of those in need and wonder why we have failed. Perhaps what we ought to do is recognize that poverty is a crisis of the spirit and, therefore, we must look to institutions that have demonstrated that they can solve those problems.
We should evaluate our service providers with the same principles we use in our market economy. We should look for outcomes. In our market economy, we don’t ask whether someone is certified to make a discovery or an invention. We want to know if that person has produced.
If I am in a market economy and have a computer software package that saves the company $3 million, I’m going to get promoted. No one is going to ask me whether I have a degree in computer science, because certification is not synonymous with qualification. The industry knows that.
We must look in unusual places for new solutions. Many of the inventions that drive this economy have not been produced by people with training in that particular field. In business and in medicine, we are willing to look to unconventional sources for solutions.
For instance, a pharmacologist from New Jersey went into the villages of Tibet looking for a cure to mental illness. He saw that people who were frenzied after a ritual dance became very relaxed after Buddhist monks administered certain herbs to them. This pharmacologist also discovered that the incidence of mental illness there was the lowest among any population he had ever seen. So he took this herb to his New Jersey laboratory and refined it, and it became the foundation upon which we have our tranquilizers. We didn’t say, “Well, those are uneducated Tibetans, so whatever applies to them doesn’t apply to us.” No, we learned from the Tibetans.
“Suffering the problem”
But we don’t do the same kind of research when it comes to poverty in this country. We refuse to go into low-income public housing to learn how someone like Kimi Gray, who was abandoned by her husband at age 21 with five children, got out of welfare in three years and eventually sent all five kids to college — and later helped send 800 kids in her public housing development to college. You don’t see researchers running in there trying to discover what she did and how she did it and how we can apply her cures to other poor people. You don’t, because the Poverty Pentagon is threatened by the success of low-income healing agents. We resist innovation coming from the people suffering the problem. Those whose careers rest on the existence of a problem are not anxious to see that problem solved.
One of the most perplexing problems we face is drugs and alcohol. Rehabilitation does not work for drug and alcohol users. When you rehabilitate someone, you restore them to the condition that they were previously in. But there is no assurance that, in this state, they will not be susceptible to the same lures. If they were messed up before, they are likely going to mess up again. That is why when you take rehabilitated people and reintroduce them to a debilitating environment, they fail. That is why boot camps don’t work. We are ready to spend millions and millions of dollars on boot camps even though it has been demonstrated by the data that when you reintroduce those young people back into their environments, they become recidivists.
The Bible teaches us that if you remove an evil without replacing it with a superior good, that vacuum will be filled by an evil seven times worse. That is why people go into prison and come out worse off than they were before.
But when you take a person’s heart and transform it by bringing that person into a relationship with God, and you then reintroduce him into a debilitated environment — he proceeds to transform that environment. Grass-root leaders do this at a cost of $50 a day, with an 80-percent success rate, when conventional government and private-sector rehabilitation programs cost $600 a day with a success rate of only 6 percent.
What is the response of public officials to these data? Pennsylvania just made it a requirement that you must have a bachelor’s degree to get certified to serve drug users and alcoholics. In essence, this means that those faith-based organizations which have demonstrated effectiveness will be excised from the marketplace. Then, when conditions get worse because faith-based organizations have been forced out, members of the Poverty Pentagon will turn to the public and say, “See, we told you those nasty Republicans were causing evil through their reforms.”
We must end the hostility toward faith-based organizations, because they alone have the cure to our societal crisis. You don’t, I must emphasize, have to embrace the religion or the specific faith of an organization in order to appreciate what it can do.
As an example, suppose your car runs out of gas in a high crime area at 11 o’clock on a rainy night. There’s a gas station two blocks away, and you begin walking toward it on a narrow street when 10 young men come around the corner and confront you. Would it make a difference to you if you knew they had just left Bible study? Point being, you don’t have to embrace religion to appreciate the impact it has on attitude and behavior.
We also have to overcome the kind of educational imperialism that says a person is not worth listening to if he dangles a participle, splits an infinitive or breaks a verb. A lot of untutored people have come up with cures. And these cures are for everybody, because the crisis we are witnessing with inner-city, low-income minority communities is finding its way to white suburbia.
In a small, all-white town in Texas, 10 young boys, ages 8-12, brutally tortured and killed a horse in a field. When they were arrested at their school, they expressed no remorse. They talked about how cool it was to be busted in front of their friends. Their parents were totally dismayed when they went to the police station and their children were still remorseless.
The crises those 10 families are experiencing are the same as the crisis facing the inner-city mother whose 14-year-old boy threw a 5-year-old boy out the window because he wouldn’t steal candy. This kind of crisis cannot be answered through any social program. These crises are the result of people who are wandering without purpose. Someone once said that hell is not dying; hell is wandering without purpose or content to your life.
There are a lot of people at the grass-roots level who have demonstrated that they can provide cures for our social problems. They don’t deal in the kind of data social scientists recognize, but they provide visible results. How much do they trust in their cures? I recently took my wife, my 16-year-old son, and my 12-year-old daughter to visit Pastor Freddie Garciaat his Christ-based drug and alcohol treatment program in San Antonio. The pastor has 12-year-old and a 13-year-old daughters himself.
One afternoon Pastor Garcia’s wife, Ninfa, took her car keys and gave them to three young women who were graduates of the program and told them to take my kids and her kids to an amusement park, as well as swimming and to dinner, and to bring them back by 9 p.m. As they were walking out the door, Ninfa turned to me with a smile and said, “Relax, Bob. They’re ex-prostitutes and former drug addicts, the kids will be just fine.” How many psychologists, psychiatrists or therapists would trust their ex-patients like that?
My grass-roots people do it unhesitatingly. If I can trust these people enough to turn over the most precious thing that I have on this earth — my children — then why can’t we accept them and look at them seriously as a source of new information and insights?
Yet, if you go to a foundation and ask for a grant to study these successes or to study the capacity of poor people, you will be met with polite indifference because we are hostile to cures that we don’t understand, forged by people who are alien to us. We act as if we have more to fear from God than from guns.
We must embrace new solutions, look to new sources, and overcome the prejudice we have against low-income people. We must recognize that we shouldn’t do this as an act of charity. We need to do this because these grass-roots leaders are agents of renewal and healing. God has oriented the human body towards health. The moment there is injury, healing begins. We know that the most effective form of healing of the human body is when you strengthen the body’s own immune system to heal itself. A heart transplant is the last thing that you do after all other interventions have failed.
Yet with regard to the “body” of low-income communities, we start with the moral equivalent of a heart transplant. Rather than invasive surgery, we should supply the natural immune system of those communities. I am saying to you that answers exist in the indigenous healing agents of low-income neighborhoods. If we are to restore the health of our society, we have to begin by embracing these faith-based solutions. As someone said, “If we lose our money, we haven’t lost very much. If we lose our health, we have lost something. But if we lose our spirit, we have lost everything.” God bless you.
A conversation with Vin Weber, Tim Penny and the audience
Vin Weber: Bob, my question for you is this: You’re sitting here, by conventional standards, in a very religious state. Minnesota has a lot of church attendance, a lot of very active religious organizations. Lutherans and Catholics are the largest denominations in the state, but Billy Graham also is headquartered here. What do you have to tell us about organized religion — the so-called mainstream churches and the large organized churches — and their response to the kinds of problems and solutions you’re talking about? How are they doing?
Woodson: I think many of the people who are becoming fed up with partisan politics and withdrawing and not voting are the same people who are withdrawing from the churches. The church has to undergo self-examination as to whether it’s really a vehicle that embodies the Kingdom of God. A lot of churches have become preoccupied with themselves and are not doing God’s work.
My 33-year-old son is struggling spiritually. He tells me, “Dad, when I come to church humbly seeking some answers, I get confronted with doctrine. They ask me to believe and understand the doctrine. It is very complicated to me. I just want to see evidence of what the church does.”
Science never requires us to appreciate the intricacies of what it does. You push a button on a little gadget and your garage door opens. You don’t have to know theories of electronics in order to do that, and scientists don’t require it. People have more confidence in science than they do in religion. Science only requires you to be impressed with the consequence of what it does, not the intricacies of electrical theory. But the church almost requires you to embrace the equivalent of molecular theory in order to understand what it does.
The church shouldn’t come to people with doctrine; it should come to them with answers. Its works should entice you to embrace its doctrine. Christ not only taught, he healed. He didn’t approach people first with the Eucharist. He started by healing the sick and curing the blind and the lame.
Tim Penny: Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities run some programs strictly with private money, but they also contract with the government in some cases. What are your observations about using that sort of relationship as a vehicle of providing support to the poor?
Woodson: At the beginning of the century, foster care and adoption were the responsibility of the churches, and the economic incentives were on the correct side. If a child was in crisis and put in foster care, the purpose was to foster that child’s return to its family or extended family — or get the child adopted. It was expensive for the church to keep children in foster care, so it had the economic incentive to place them for adoption. Once the church entered into an agreement with the state, the incentives changed. The churches received funds on the basis of how many children were in foster care, not how many they placed in homes. As a result of these inverted incentives, fewer children were placed and they were placed less quickly.
Penny: Could you name two or three government programs that work well because they have a moral basis to the treatment or services they provide? Could you also give examples of the very worst government programs that come to mind?
Woodson: The ones that work aren’t working because they have a moral basis, but because they are addressing a different type of problem. For instance, in the 1960s we had children in rural America with stomachs bloated from hunger, and the government did an excellent job through child nutrition programs to address those problems, so we don’t have children in rural areas dying of starvation any longer. We also have done an excellent job of caring for our elderly. We had elderly people in the 1960s dying with no food in their stomachs. The government again did an excellent job. I also think that in child immunization, government has done a good job.
Now, three of the worst. It would be hard to choose which three. You must understand that all these programs start with good intentions, just like every tax loophole begins as a tax incentive.
In 1974, some social reformers said we should define drug users and alcoholics as handicapped. That made them eligible to receive $543 a month from the government. Checks totaling huge sums were sent by the Department of Health and Human Services to drug users and alcoholics, often through “third parties” of liquor stores and bars. Because there was no requirement that one had to improve his or her life, most of that money was actually spent on liquor and drugs. Therefore, HHS became the largest supplier of drugs and alcohol to the American public — larger than any drug dealer in America.
After the national media was alerted to this scandal, legislation was passed to reform the SSI payment system. Yet even now alcoholics and addicts are receiving guidance from groups such as a coalition for the homeless in Colorado regarding ways that their benefits can be reinstated.
The second bad collection of programs has to do with foster care and adoption. Research has shown that there are many black households willing to adopt children who are in foster care — but that the screen-out rate for black families is as high as 90 percent. Often, regulations that result in the rejection of prospective adoptive parents have nothing to do with the character and quality of their household. The problem is not a dearth of families who are willing to adopt. The problem is that these agencies have no incentives for placing children.
The third set of programs has to do with mental health. In 1963, we passed the Comprehensive Mental Health and Mental Retardation Act, which was designed to devolve resources to local communities when patients were released from mental hospitals. Well, within a 20-year period, mental hospitals reduced their populations by 80 percent, yet their budgets went up 200 percent. The money never followed the people in the community. Now, one-third of the homeless population is composed of people who belong in institutions but cannot be admitted. That is what I call injury by the helping hand.
Roger Lynn: I am a pastor at an inner-city church that has a 25-year history of working in the neighborhood for social justice. We work closely with the Native American community. I think they provide a model — not a very functional model — of government and church working hand in hand for a population. In that collaboration, the church and the state systematically decimated the Native American culture, and I think the state and church are responsible to a large degree for the difficult place that the Native American community is in today. Please speak to the issue that some religious communities promote values that are destructive to society at times. How do you deal with that reality?
Woodson: You cannot generalize about any group. Some religious groups are doing injury just like some government programs are doing injury, but you cannot then paint all religious institutions as bad because some of them happen to have done some terrible things. I can give you hundreds and hundreds of examples involving thousands of people who, over the past 30 years, have been liberated from drugs and alcohol as a consequence of their religious experience.
Alfred Babington-Johnson: I would like to hear from Tim Penny and Vin Weber, heretofore clearly identified as Democrat and Republican, about how people with diverse ideas can come together and solve our social problems.
Weber: That’s a tough question, but I would be willing to criticize my party a little bit. In my view, the Republican Party really doesn’t have a social policy. The Democrats have a flawed social policy, which is the liberal welfare state that they have been building since the 1930s. It doesn’t work for a lot of reasons. But I can’t be too critical as a Republican, because 90 percent of Republicans have simply swept away those issues, and while there is coherent Republican philosophy about economic and foreign policy, there really isn’t a coherent Republican philosophy about social policy.
I think we are all a little bit at sea in the post-Cold War era. Republicans have always thought that government was about leading the world, winning the Cold War, trying to keep the economy growing, and minimizing regulations, taxes and spending. Then someone would ask Republicans what they were going to do about poor people in the inner cities, and they would usually turn the other way or talk about something else. Or maybe they would stand on principle and say that is not the proper role of government. That is not adequate. We are caught between this bad Democratic social policy and no Republican social policy.
I think that is part of why the country is very frustrated with politics today. Americans don’t want the government to simply build more edifices in Washington and more bureaucracy. But they do want to address real problems, and not just the problems of poor people. There is health care, the environment, and so on. They are waiting for somebody to find another way of looking at these problems. The Democrats who are willing to break free of the orthodoxy of welfare-state liberalism may at the end of a day be better able to articulate a good social policy because they have been thinking about those issues for a long time, while Republicans haven’t.
Penny: Vin and I have shared a frustration with the norms on Capitol Hill. Much of what drives decision-making there has to do with power. A lot of decisions that have been made in the last few years were made with an eye toward creating campaign issues. Let’s use Medicare as an example. Democrats have decided that they can get good political mileage out of Medicare, so they play that all the way to November, even though Bill Clinton’s own trustee of the Medicare Fund has admitted that the program will be in the red by the year 2002.
We don’t have much time to waste, but we are content to waste another year because there is political advantage to be made by politicizing the Medicare issue between now and November. Vin and I are both tired of that. But we were pleasantly surprised to discover that there are large audiences (like this one) that will turn out for breakfast meetings to see Democrats and Republicans sit down and try to find some common ground on these issues.
Woodson: Let me just add a footnote to that. What attracted me to Vin Weber and Newt Gingrich early on was their willingness to break ranks and take positions on principle even when it defied their own party and their friends. I remember attending a Friday night woodshed event at the Heritage Foundation where Vin and Newt were brought in because they voted against their party in “Grove City,” a very sensitive civil rights issue a number of years ago, and they were accused of pandering to minorities.
Newt said something that silenced all of their critics. I will never forget it. He said, “I voted for Grove City not because I was crazy about the legislation, but because the Republican Party can never be a majority party as long as it is perceived to be against the interests of the poor and minorities. So I voted as I did because I didn’t want to be perceived as being against that, and until you bring me a conservative civil rights agenda, I will have to vote that way. Now, do you have one?”
There was silence, and the meeting was over. I think that is the kind of principled leadership we need from both sides; leadership that puts the interest of the American public above party and ideology.
Mike Ricci: The charter school movement is dependent on government funds. What should we do to prevent the Poverty Pentagon from destroying what might be a very good idea?
Woodson: First of all we need to dispel this notion about “government funds”. That is our money, the contribution of taxpayers. We need to look at cases in which government has been able to help financially without needless interference. You should go back and read the debate that occurred surrounding the GI Bill of Rights in the 1940s. The opposition to the GI Bill was led by the president of the University of Chicago, who said that if you gave money directly to the GI’s, you would create an intellectual hobo jungle of higher education. Congress ignored these so-called experts and gave the money to the GI’s, and I haven’t heard anyone complain.
Yet, you can take your GI “voucher” and go to a sectarian university and there is no big clamor about the church-state issue? Why are we only concerned about K-12? I think we need to go back and re-examine some of those early debates and see how those questions were resolved.
Weber: I think this is a very important issue. I believe that ultimately vouchers are central to the answer. But if you want to make charter schools work, you cannot allow a monopoly to continue to exist in chartering institutions or entities. If you actually have competing entities or institutions that can grant charters, then you really take the charter school movement and move it a long way. But if you maintain a kind of public school monopoly among chartering entities, I think you are going to substantially limit the effectiveness of that innovation.
Dorothy LeGrand: Most blacks believe in the death penalty. Most blacks believe in mandatory sentencing of drug dealers. Most blacks think that a person who has been on welfare and has an additional child should be removed from welfare programs. As I always say, they sound like us [conservatives], but they vote like them [liberals]. When I was running for Congress in 1994, some person I had never met in my life said it was very difficult for him to understand how a black female could be running for office and not discuss welfare, food stamps and subsidized housing. My response to the New York Times was, “It was not my idea of the American dream.” Would you share your views as to why black people sound like Republicans but vote like Democrats?
Woodson: First of all, there’s the obvious historical relationship that blacks have had with the Democrats and Roosevelt. The Democratic dominance continues to exist because of its ties to the civil rights movement and because we Republicans have not offered an alternative.
Today, blacks are withdrawing from the political process and, therefore, there are few leaders who are expressing our views. It’s important for us to have discussions about this and get more of our young people running as Republicans. One of the members of the Black Caucus in Congress said 25 percent of all blacks should vote Republican because it would help him, a black Democrat. That’s true. That’s a very honest statement because black Democrats are injured by the noncompetition. They are being taken for granted.
Joe Selvaggio: I would like to challenge the view that social service agencies aren’t doing their job and that money cannot be a very important factor. I think it is true that money can be spent poorly and that money can give people unneeded crutches and entitlement mentalities. But it can work very effectively, and it can be used to fund people who are pushing values.
There are people in the private marketplace who say we should be spending $100 billion more a year on social service agencies that are dealing with problems that cropped up because of capitalism. It doesn’t sound like that much money when you realize we are spending $500 billion on gambling. Some of the social service agencies are pushing people to be responsible and not just giving entitlements.
Mitch Pearlstein: Let me offer an epilogue to that. Joe Selvaggio is the founder and, for the last about 24 years, the executive director of one of the very good anti-poverty programs in town, Project for Pride in Living. They have a very large budget, but they also focus on values.
Woodson: If spending on existing social services had produced results and we saw declining incidence of homelessness, declining incidence of foster care, then taxpayers would agree with you. But taxpayers are saying that there is no correlation. There is almost a reverse relationship between how much we spend and what we get. The marketplace would never tolerate that kind of a view.
Recently, the well-intentioned Annie Casey Foundation spent $53 million in five years in five cities. The money had to be matched by local dollars. The intention was to help at-risk children. They coordinated existing social services so they could better collaborate and concentrate on this population. Well, they just released their report on where the $106 million went and what it produced. The foundation’s own evaluation revealed that few children were helped through the project and that its main result was simply that agencies are collaborating better.
If an American corporation spent $106 million over five years to market a product and the stockholders found out that the product wasn’t marketed, it would be a scandal. But we accept that as normal in this crazy environment of philanthropy and social service. We are armed with good intentions, but there is no requirement to produce outcomes for the people we say we care about.
Unidentified: Is the pace of change and transition in our society moving at such momentum that we can barely keep in front of the problems?
Woodson: I don’t believe so. When polio was sweeping this nation, we kept investing in different cures and then we found one. The question is how do we take something that works in microcosm and spread it through the whole population?
I am here to give you witness that I have seen miraculous cures of people whom everyone else had thrown out. If grass-roots organizations can do that for a thousand people, then there is hope for everyone suffering these problems.
If we were operating like a market, we would want to take these cures and get them to the marketplace. But we don’t do that because there is proprietary interest in maintaining people in poverty. The poor represent a $340 billion industry. That is a powerful disincentive to find a solution to poverty.
Somehow we have got to apply the principles that function in our marketplace. If the existing social service industry has the cures, fund them. But they ought to be judged by outcomes and not by their intentions or whether somebody is good or bad. People working in the industry aren’t doing it for the money. But they are living in an institution that causes good people to do bad things.
We must begin to challenge that arrangement because this country is in a moral free fall, and we cannot afford to be defensive about what we have done. I am saying this as a civil rights advocate who went to jail in the civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s. A lot of what we did helped some of us, but not all of us, and many who suffered and sacrificed did not benefit from the change.
I am the first one to say that we made mistakes and we need to change. Some of you working inside these systems need to be honest with yourself and put the interests of the poor ahead of your histories, your reputations, your institutions. Programs must be driven by outcomes that can be measured. People suffering the problems must be the judges. I trust them, not the providers.
— Robert L. Woodson, Sr., President National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise
— Tim Penny-Vin Weber Distinguished Fellows Series Center of the American Experiment