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PRETTY WORDS ON POVERTY



Published: Mon, May 21, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Washington Post: As his tax bill chugs through Congress, President Bush has seized the opportunity of a commencement address to burnish his compassionate credentials. Speaking to students at the University of Notre Dame on Sunday, he presented his support for faith-based charities as a third wave in the national fight against poverty, following Lyndon Johnson's landmark legislation and the welfare reform passed under President Clinton. Mr. Bush's focus on poverty is welcome, and religious charities can deliver important services to the needy. But the idea that the administration's faith-based initiative warrants comparison with Mr. Johnson's War on Poverty is a troubling exaggeration.

The chief reason is that the impressive achievements of religious charities are probably not scalable. As the advocates of religious social work are themselves the first to say, its strength lies in the ability to change people's hearts: to inspire them, in a way that a government bureaucracy usually cannot, to make their own lives better. But this inspiration depends on the chemistry between social worker and client. The limiting factor is not mainly money, which government could fix, but something much less tangible.

Head Start: Moreover, there are many aspects of poverty that small charities are ill equipped to address. A faith-based program may succeed in inspiring drug addicts to change their ways, and a community policing effort that makes allies out of inner-city pastors has a better chance of succeeding than one that does not. But what is the role of faith in providing medical insurance to poor children, in administering food stamps or in designing the best Head Start curriculum? The 1996 welfare reform included a provision that made religious charities eligible to provide job-search counseling and other services to people on the rolls. With a few exceptions, however, religious groups have turned out to offer little in this area.

This is not to say that Mr. Bush's faith-based initiative is misguided. Provided that the church-state issue is dealt with carefully, it's good for government to support religious groups that deliver needed services to the poor without seeking to convert them. But the administration should not kid itself that this is the answer to America's scandalously pervasive poverty. The strong economy of the 1990s has brought the poverty rate down from a peak of 15 percent at the start of the decade to 12 percent in 1999, the most recent year for which data are available. But that rate is still higher than in the America of the early 1970s and higher too than in other advanced countries. It cries out for ambitious public antipoverty programs -- financed by the resources that Mr. Bush has chosen to devote instead to his tax cut.




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