Seeking the Welfare of the City

COMMENTARY Marriage and Family

Seeking the Welfare of the City

May 1, 2012 9 min read

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

Conservatives are often portrayed as selfish scrooges who only care about their own bottom lines. But when it comes to truly meeting people’s needs, they’re the leaders of the pack.

Star Parker knew poverty personally. As a young drug addict in southern California, she lacked money, employment and hope. At one point, she was arrested for helping to rob a liquor store, and over the span of a few years, she had four abortions—all paid for by the government. Parker survived on welfare checks and free medical-care stickers, which she would sell to purchase illegal drugs.

The scriptural call to care for people such as Parker is clear: Loving our neighbor entails helping those in dire straits and working for the common good of their community.

In the biblical sense, seeking welfare has to do with promoting circumstances that allow people to flourish. It means helping people thrive in their homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, economies and political communities. This goal characterizes a true conservative political framework.

Now the president of a social policy research center focused on poverty issues, Parker testifies that a biblical view of human flourishing is at home in a conservative agenda—one focused on basic human dignity, strong families, a vibrant civil society, prosperous free markets and limited government.

Who Cares?

Many conservatives—and especially those motivated by faith—are on the front lines of caring for the poor. They’re the “street saints” who work quietly but tirelessly in the trenches, providing critical services in education, health, drug rehabilitation, prisoner re-entry, job training and disaster relief.

In fact, research shows conservatives actually give more to the poor than liberals. Syracuse University professor Arthur Brooks compiled this body of research in his 2006 book Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism. Brooks found that conservative-headed households tend to give about 30 percent more money to charity than liberal-headed households, even though liberal families earn an average of 6 percent more each year than conservative families. Conservatives also tend to volunteer more time and give more blood than do liberals.

Despite such data, conventional wisdom portrays liberals as being the ones intent on fighting poverty and conservatives as selfish scrooges. Sadly, the promotion of free markets and limited government is often mistakenly equated with a disregard for people in need. Meanwhile, support for government redistribution programs functions as a kind of litmus test for genuine care and compassion. (Never mind the paradoxical fact that, according to Brooks, Americans who favor income-redistribution policies are significantly less likely to behave charitably than those who do not.)

True compassion, though, isn’t measured by how much money the federal government spends. The real question is which approach actually helps people escape poverty and flourish over the long-run. Conservatives tend to answer that question differently than liberals, although they both share the goal of “seeking the welfare of the city.”

A brief look at the history of welfare spending in America suggests that the liberal solution has fallen short.

Spending Isn’t Working

Since the beginning of the “War on Poverty” in 1965, the federal government has spent $16 trillion on welfare. During that time, total government spending has more than doubled, while means-tested welfare spending has increased 17-fold.

This massive spending has failed to reduce significantly either government dependence or poverty levels. Instead, welfare dependence has grown dramatically. From 1960 until shortly before the federal welfare reforms of 1996, the total number of welfare recipients more than tripled. Moreover, the overall poverty rate has not changed much over the past four decades; Today, one in seven Americans lives at or below the official federal poverty line. [ FamilyFacts Chart

These results reveal that more government spending isn’t the answer. Not only has throwing money at the problem failed to bring about the promised results, it’s also produced unintended negative consequences.

One consequence has been the “crowding out” of responsibilities and resources of private institutions. In his book, Brooks shows how a 10-percent increase in a state’s welfare spending correlates with a 3-percent decrease in charitable giving by its citizens.

Another harmful consequence of the federal government’s War on Poverty has been its effects on marriage in low-income communities. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, the welfare system maintained unintentional disincentives for marriage.yes">  Recipients only qualified if their household incomes were below a specified level. If a single mother married a man with a job, she risked losing her benefits. From 1965 to 1995, the unwed birth rate quadrupled, from less than eight percent to 32 percent. [ Marriage and Poverty in the U.S., Chart 1 . Today, it’s 40.6 percent.

State and national policymakers should reassess why spending nearly $1 trillion annually is failing to reduce poverty. A large part of the problem lies with an underlying assumption about the nature of poverty in America.

Poverty of the Soul

Many government anti-poverty programs share the assumption that poverty in American is essentially a lack of money. But if this assumption is wrong, then government can never spend enough to overcome it.

For the most part, poverty in America arises primarily not from a lack of income, but from multiple broken relationships in people’s lives. Financial trouble is often a symptom of a deeper breakdown.

In Parker’s case, poverty resulted from the anger, bitterness and damaged sense of self-worth brought on by racism.

“I bought into the lie that there was nothing in America for me,” she said. “So I became very rebellious.”

Whether caused by a father abandoning his children, a broken marriage turning a spouse to drugs or a teenager looking for acceptance and belonging in the wrong places, poverty and social breakdown often stem from people wrongly relating to someone or something. These broken relationships often lead to material hardship.

Given the relational nature of poverty, approaches that focus solely on material provision, such as government welfare and entitlement programs, are inadequate. Such methods ignore important emotional, spiritual, and interpersonal needs.

Effective efforts to fight poverty tend to run the gamut of relationships necessary for thriving, as shown in the small-group study guide Seek Social Justice, produced by The Heritage Foundation ( Such approaches aim not only for full stomachs, warm clothes and a place to sleep; they also seek to heal brokenness, cultivate good habits and strengthen social and familial bonds, which make poverty unlikely in the first place.

This is partly why families, churches and local nonprofits often successfully meet people’s needs. These institutions can cultivate the hope, trust, friendship, accountability, discipline, encouragement, and healthy personal relationships that are key to human well-being.

And this is the role that a local pastor and a mentor couple played in Parker’s life. The personal challenge, support and role modeling they provided prompted her to seek a different path in life. Shortly thereafter, Parker wrote to the government welfare office and told them to stop sending her welfare checks. She soon landed a good job, earned her degree and launched her own magazine. Today, she is a leading spokesperson for free markets, limited government and a vibrant civil society.

Poverty-reduction efforts should strengthen those spheres of society in which healthy activities and relationships grow. Two such spheres that impact poverty significantly are marriage and work—both of which are centerpieces of a conservative agenda.


Healthy marriage and family relationships are vitally important for people and communities to thrive.

Research shows healthy marriages benefit people, especially women and children, in many dimensions (see If society has a legitimate interest in good education, physical health and a dearth of child poverty, then it has a legitimate interest in promoting marriage, because that is the context in which education, physical health, and financial prosperity tend to flourish.

Family breakdown is perhaps the social justice issue of our time.

When families fall apart, individual and social problems escalate. The breakdown of marriage and family is a major predictor of poverty in America. Almost 75 percent of long-term poverty in America occurs in single-parent homes. A child born to an unwed mother is six times more likely to experience poverty than a child born and raised in a home with married parents. Studies also show children raised by married parents are less likely to use drugs or alcohol, or experience crime, unwed pregnancy or domestic violence, and more likely to perform well in school and sustain physical and mental health.

Far from being solely a private or religious matter, marriage, divorce and unwed pregnancy affect the health and well-being of individuals and society’s common good.

Work and Welfare

Work is another vitally important aspect of human flourishing. Each person is created in the image of a Creator God, and is therefore naturally creative and productive. Effective anti-poverty efforts pursue conditions and policies that create opportunities and incentives to work. History shows this is better achieved by free markets than by government control.

Policies allowing markets to determine prices and people to reap the fruits of their labor are more likely to encourage innovation, risk-taking, entrepreneurship and investment—activities that also create new jobs. Excessive regulations, punitive taxation and redistribution schemes stunt these dynamics.

Conservative policies create economic conditions that expand opportunities to work and generate upward mobility for all. Without these conditions, many end up trapped in an impersonal and degrading system. The government welfare system was intended to serve as a safety net against extreme poverty. In dire situations, when civil society can’t meet people’s basic needs, the government does have an interest in providing material support. However, this safety net should neither discourage healthy behaviors, such as work and marriage, nor crowd out smaller, voluntary organizations. And it should not foster long-term dependence on government, but rather help people get back on their feet—like a trampoline rather than a hammock. [Federal Spending Chart 10].

Sadly, government welfare had the opposite effect on Parker. Early in her career, she quit her full-time job at a newspaper, because she knew she could get more money from welfare. Once the welfare checks started coming in, she would drop her daughter off at a government-funded day care center and hang out at the beach all afternoon, getting high with drugs she bought with welfare funds.

This tendency to incentivize harmful behavior and create long-term dependence on the government can be dehumanizing.

“The rules of welfare when I was on welfare were—‘Don't work. Don't save. Don't get married.’ [But] when you take work off of the table, you take worth off of the table,” Parker said. “You've taken the dignity from the person's life to contribute to their own well-being and to their community.”

Another downside is that government welfare and entitlement programs don’t often target their assistance to the people who need them most. Part of the conservative critique of entitlement programs, such as Medicare, is that they continue to give benefits to all—even billionaires who don’t need them. Conservative proposals like The Heritage Foundation’s Saving the American Dream plan (see suggest ways to make the safety net reliable as targeted protections against poverty.

In the 1990s, a majority of Americans generally agreed welfare policies were discouraging work and marriage, hurting many of the very people they intended to help. In 1996, reforms to the central federal assistance program for needy families added work requirements and policies to encourage marriage and strengthen families. As a result of these new incentives, welfare caseloads were cut in half. Work participation increased as well, particularly among the most disadvantaged.  Ten years after the reform, 1.6 million fewer children were living in poverty, and by 2001 black child poverty dropped to its lowest rate in national history.

Conservatives have a track record of reforms that work. They should take the lead in working for similar reforms in other federal welfare programs.

Conservative principles and policies are crucial to maintaining a social order that enables people to flourish.

Grounded in a relational understanding of human nature, a conservative framework promotes strong families, a free economy, limited government and a vibrant civil society. Conservatives should be bold in articulating this kind of framework, which yields the best environment for overcoming poverty.

People trapped in poverty need relationships that provide personal knowledge and meaningful connections, access to churches and ministries that offer extensive care and accountability, the opportunity to work and provide for their loved ones and secure social conditions buttressed by the rule of law. Conservative policies advance these goals and allow each institution in society to do what they do best in serving the common good.

Ryan Messmore, D.Phil., is a research fellow in religion and civil society at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in Citizen Magazine