The base of poverty

In the debate over Bush's faith-based charity plan, church vs. state is not the issue.

Published February 1, 2001 9:00AM (EST)

On Monday morning, President Bush announced the establishment of a new White House office of faith-based and community initiatives intended to help the neediest Americans by integrating religious organizations into the provision of social services.

The announcement came at the same time as Alan Greenspan was making it official that the economy is at nearly "zero growth," and as I was reading "Searching for America's Heart," the just-released book by Peter Edelman, who resigned as assistant secretary of health and human services when Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform bill.

The bad news is that, as Edelman reminds us in the book, "When the economy catches cold, the poor get pneumonia." The good news is that we may be about to reengage in a debate that was abandoned in 1996 when welfare reform was passed: What are the most effective ways to combat poverty and turn lives around? Edelman's book can help rekindle this debate by taking us beyond the sterile squabbling of the Great Society vs. the Rising Tide.

"Robert Kennedy," writes Edelman, who served as RFK's legislative assistant, "was the first 'new' Democrat, the first to espouse values of grassroots empowerment and express doubts about big bureaucratic approaches, the first to call for partnerships between the private and public sectors and insist that what we now call civic renewal is essential, the first to put particular emphasis on personal responsibility."

So RFK would likely have been entirely comfortable with Bush's emphasis on the mobilization of "church and charity, synagogue and mosque" in the fight against poverty.

The question is, would Bush be equally comfortable with RFK's insistence that this battle be a national priority, with national funding to leverage grass-roots efforts? The "points of light" that Bush's father hailed are critical, but they have to be connected to a central grid and powered by a sense of urgency.

"I'm entirely in favor of faith-based organizations playing a role in helping the poor," Edelman told me. But he's weary of the policy debate on poverty degenerating into a zero-sum church vs. state argument.

Tell that to Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who's trodding the talk-show circuit, fretting about chipping away at this wall of separation.

"It's just a big distraction," Edelman says. "We should be talking about what's going to happen when welfare reform's five-year time limits hit at the very moment that jobs are drying up."

There are still 5.78 million people on the welfare rolls. And of the 6.5 million who are off the rolls, how many will be among the first to lose their jobs as demand for labor drops? Especially since so many of these are service jobs dependent on a high rate of consumer consumption.

So what will welfare reform look like without the shine of the bull market? We're about to find out. Or, given our political leaders' and the media's attention span for this issue, the poor are about to find out.

As Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute puts it: "The rule of 'last-hired, first-fired' has not been revoked, and we're likely to see some major layoffs in the low-wage labor markets.

"If the recession is relatively long and deep, Bernstein continues, "as many as one-half of those who left welfare for work could lose their jobs."

It's not a moment too early to start preparing for this eventuality. What makes Edelman's book so wise and relevant is that he wastes not a line on meaningless big government vs. no government or church vs. state arguments.

"Much of what we need to do," Edelman writes, "has nothing to do with Washington, or with government at all. Private action is as much a part of the answer as public policy."

Bush echoed that sentiment -- after a fashion -- in his inaugural address: "Government has great responsibilities, for public safety and public health, for civil rights and common schools. Yet compassion is the work of a nation, not just a government."

So, what's missing? What's missing is what infuses Edelman's whole section on Bobby Kennedy: a passionate devotion to the issue. Here was a leader consumed with finding solutions to the problems of "the excluded." Edelman recounts a day in 1963 when RFK brought the Cabinet to his office at the Justice Department and locked the door, "keeping them there for four hours to discuss doing something about poverty."

What's also missing is the recognition that faith-based initiatives on poverty cannot be pursued in isolation from the rest of Bush's agenda. No church or synagogue is an island, unaffected by other national policies -- especially those that impact our criminal justice system and the war on drugs. The divide that starts with the poverty line has been increasingly ending at the jailhouse wall. Religious leaders will find that it's tough to be your brother's keeper when the warden holds the keys.

To breach the gulf between the two Americas that Bush spoke about, it will take national leadership of the kind Edelman so fondly remembers. The president could start by reading his book.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

MORE FROM Arianna Huffington

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George W. Bush