Civil Society: Key to Fighting Poverty, Expanding Opportunity

COMMENTARY Marriage and Family

Civil Society: Key to Fighting Poverty, Expanding Opportunity

May 15, 2011 3 min read

Ryan Messmore studies and writes about how religious commitment improves public discourse...

Many conservatives fault government welfare programs for being too expensive or for running afoul of the proper constitutional boundaries. But there’s another point to consider: Civil society offers better hope and opportunity for escaping poverty than any government program can.
Advocating limited government goes hand in hand with trusting in the capacity of institutions of civil society such as families, churches and local businesses to meet human need.
Step 13, a ministry in Denver, is the sort of effort that can help forge that conviction.
Located a few blocks from Coors Field, Step 13 is a non-profit transitional living program for homeless drug addicts. Its founder and president, Bob Coté, has devoted his life to helping broken men recover their dignity and get back on their feet.
But Coté’s love often takes a tough form. He expects the men to treat each other and the facilities with respect. He sets a high bar for behavior, and holds the men accountable.
Once, upon finding graffiti in a restroom, Coté locked it shut for six weeks. Having to use the restroom at the nearby bus station persuaded the men to think twice about defacing Step 13 property again.
Coté also conducts random tests for drug use, knowing that these men must overcome their addictions if they are to escape poverty.
Why put up with Step 13’s strict rules instead of taking advantage of local government shelters?
“I tried those shelters over and over again, but they didn’t force me to give up my drugs,” one participant says. “I knew I needed the kick in the pants that Step 13 gives—I needed the random urine tests.” 
Step 13’s approach demonstrates several basic reasons why civil society often serves the poor more effectively than government programs do.
First, these local institutions can understand and target the root of the problem. Simply giving taxpayers’ money to poor people doesn’t overcome poverty. In America, material poverty usually is a symptom of deeper problems, including depression and fatherlessness or other broken relationships.
Groups such as Step 13, often equipped with a biblical worldview, are able to diagnose the root problems of poverty and social breakdown. They have a leg up on addressing the problems effectively.
Second, those who are part of institutions of civil society have the advantage of personally knowing the folks they help. People have different needs at different times. Effective solutions tailor assistance to the need at hand. The one-size-fits-all approaches of government programs lack this personal knowledge.
Distant bureaucracies aren’t able to see what Bob Coté sees: One man’s drug addiction is rooted in childhood abandonment, but the next man’s addiction can be traced back to a learning disability. Personally knowing these men enables Step 13 to provide necessary help.  
Third, local families and congregations often are equipped to address a wider range of needs than government can. To thrive, individuals need not only physical things such as clothes, shelter and food but also intangibles such as encouragement, hope, training, correction and good role models.
Sometimes they just need someone to provide helpful feedback or to advocate for them. And they need a sense of purpose, meaning and belonging.
Government anti-poverty programs often focus on a reduced set of needs, a perspective that hinders their ability to change lives. Families and faith-based ministries, in contrast, are equipped to meet a much broader range of needs, including spiritual, familial, emotional and interpersonal. So organizations of civil society offer a more realistic path to human flourishing.  
Fourth, personalized approaches can connect assistance with accountability and discipline. Many forms of government welfare require little or nothing in return from recipients of cash assistance and other aid—no thank-you note, no promise to repay the money, no increased standard of good behavior, no effort to improve their own situation.
This approach dehumanizes the needy by treating them as passive recipients, with nothing to contribute to the common good. It also cultivates an entitlement mentality, as well as dependence on government handouts.
Organizations such as Step 13 operate differently. They realize that tying assistance to accountability and discipline is a more dignified and loving approach. It recognizes that poor people have gifts to share and helps them escape cycles of dependence.
There’s a lesson here for government welfare programs. In 1996, when a new federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) began to tie benefits to work, millions escaped the welfare rolls and child poverty decreased significantly.
Recognizing that discipline is a form of care, conservatives should promote similar work requirements in other welfare programs.
Fifth and finally, our institutions of civil society can devise innovative ways to promote work and service. The most effective tool for escaping poverty in America is earning a paycheck. Non-government organizations not only can provide employment directly, but also can help unemployed men and women train for, find and keep jobs.
In Denver, Coté equips the men in Step 13 with computer-based education and training programs as well as by teaching basic life skills. He vouches for their character and work ethic when asking local business owners and executives to give these men a chance.
Businesses agree because of Coté’s presence as a mentor who holds the men accountable. Such human dynamics are simply lacking in most government welfare or “job creation” programs.
What government program run by Washington bureaucrats can show itself so well-equipped to help lift individual Americans out of poverty, expand their opportunities and prepare them to flourish?

Ryan Messmore is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in Conservative Home