Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Poverty: From a Conservative Viewpoint

As with many of my posts, this topic was inspired by a class discussion on development economics and the ensuing follow-up conversations with fellow students. I think it is a fascinating topic to discuss and analyze as well as a very important social ill that much of the world -including our own nation, continues to struggle with on a daily basis. Any follow-up discussion that you would contribute is welcomed and encouraged, in the comment section below.

Poverty. The greatest social blight of the world. We've all seen the commercials for the non-profits that seek to sponsor children living in poverty. Most of us have seen documentaries and newscasts from experts that discuss the implications of poverty on society in Africa and Southeast Asia. In lieu of the sheer mass of public awareness campaigns and NGO's that we encounter in our daily lives, it can be easy to turn a blind eye to the reality of this issue in the world. There are millions of individuals in the world living in extreme poverty with little or no hope of climbing the economic ladder and achieving a higher per capita socioeconomic status. 

If this seems a little daunting of an issue for this blog to tackle - and maybe a little too globally minded - I understand. For many of us, addressing poverty and disease in Africa and the rest of the developing world is not even an option -- our daily lives are more than enough to figure out, and the financial and time commitments necessary to help the rest world are simply impossible for us. But there is another area of poverty that is often ignored - local poverty. Poverty in our own neighborhoods, cities, and states. The city of San Francisco had approximately 6,436 individuals living in homelessness in 2013. That's huge. 

While thinking about this issue, it occurred to me - in light of the fact that conservatives often find themselves on the defensive with regard to their opposition to government policies and regulations, I thought it might be nice to discuss how a conservative (myself) views the issue of global and domestic poverty - and how Americans, and my fellow Christians, can remain compassionate and attentive to this serious social ill while maintaining our fiscal responsibility in government policymaking.

In my Political Economy class, we made a distinction between the two primary views on how one should address poverty in the world. The first category are labeled as "Planners" while the second are "Searchers." Planners seek to gather research, discuss policy and with the collaboration of various experts - create a plan to solve the issue. This approach is associated, in part, with the approach advocated by Jeffrey Sachs. Searchers, on the other hand, view the issue as too complex to address through any expert-plan. Poverty is an issue that must be addressed piecemeal through homegrown solutions. Do these arguments sound familiar? They should - this is essentially the permanent policy debate between conservatives and liberals, when it comes to social policy and economic development. In light of this, you can probably guess which side of the fence I come out on. I align with the "searchers." Primarily. 

To show my hand - I do not believe that poverty can be eradicated. Ever. I think that some form of poverty will always exist - to deny this, I believe, is to deny human nature and the entire history of civilizations in the world. However, I do believe that poverty is still a social ill that individuals should seek to fight and resist - it is certainly possible to reduce poverty - and even work towards a temporary solution by alleviating the amount of absolute and extreme poverty in the world. I believe that poverty is a serious issue and one that many of us, and especially many Christians, fail to devote serious thought or time toward addressing. If Christians, such as myself, claim to follow the teaching and work of Christ - then we should be seeking to address the physical as well as spiritual needs of those around us. Micah 6:8 declares, "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" 

So - poverty should be fought - but how?

I believe that to address poverty and limit/eliminate it, one must first understand where the issues of poverty really come from. Is it the result of exploitation by the rest of the world? Is it the result of lack of innovation and engagement? Is it self-caused, or a byproduct of other people's and government's actions?

Answer - Yes. And No. Because global poverty is far too big of an issue to boil down to one cause - in some places, all of these might be the case. In others, none. In some, it may be a mix of a few of these, but not all. This is why I am a "Searcher" and not a Planner - just as this is why I believe in the Free Market and limited government - it is impossible to accurately predict all of the variables that will influence economics in the future or the present - but we have consistently seen that when individuals are provided with a basic framework of law and order and equality of opportunity - then competition allows some to shine, while others fail. Government policies to help those in poverty are not preferable, but at times, they might be necessary. The most desirable approach to fighting poverty, though, in my belief, is by those outside of poverty living with and engaging in community with those trapped in the social conditions of poverty. This allows those who truly need change to have policies formed based on the realities of those in need, not based on the decisions of political elites. It also allows those in poverty to have an opportunity to be equipped and empowered to pull themselves out of poverty - when they see the decisions and choices that must be made to achieve success, and observe them working, they will be more willing to accept these changes than if someone simply tells them what to do.

The most important thing to remember, however, is that talking about poverty and doing something about poverty are not the same thing. Tossing money to homeless person might be all well and good, but it does little to actually help them out of their situation. I admit, that I am often guilty of repeating this mistake, because it is much easier to give money than to give time. However, if you do have time or the resources, I would encourage us all to make time - even if only on occasion - to volunteer and assist organizations and individuals seeking to address local issues of poverty. Small steps can lead to big changes. Only by going out of our way to help equip individuals with the knowledge and skills that they need to pull themselves out of poverty, do we have any hope of solving this very real and tragic issue in society.
WJU San Francisco Outreach Team, November 2013

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