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Robert David SullivanMarch 25, 2014

You can tell there’s a lull in political news this week because of all the meta stories, such as National Journal’s “The Presidential Election Does Start Earlier Every Four Years (but Don’t Blame the Media)” and the heavy coverage, accompanied by heavy criticism, of Nate Silver’s new website. But one political debate that’s still going strong is about the best approach to fighting poverty, something that U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan has been insisting that the Democratic Party gets wrong.

Ryan isn’t well-served by Marc Thiessen’s column in Monday’s Washington Post, headlined “Why the left is attacking Paul Ryan.” Thiessen argues that the Democrats see Ryan “as a threat — to their political interests and the poverty-industrial complex they have built over the past five decades” (not to be confused with the prison-industrial complex or the Hillary Clinton–industrial complex).

But in his 830-word column, Thiessen’s entire description of the Republican Party’s alternative is this: “Now Ryan is declaring this model a failure and calling for a new approach, one that reduces poverty and dependence by unleashing opportunity.”

“Unleashing opportunity.” A fine euphemism for cutting social welfare programs, but otherwise thin gruel.

The National Review shows more imagination with a column by Center for Neighborhood Enterprise president Robert L. Woodson, called “A More Serious Poverty Debate.” Woodson is a GOP favorite, and a conservative-approved “community organizer,” so his defense of Ryan is hardly a surprise. (“He was and is willing to learn how they work, not by reading studies that aggregate results from hundreds of sites, but by going into poor neighborhoods one by one and talking to low-income people face-to-face.”)

The upshot of Woodson’s column is that the often-derided fact-finding trips by Ryan and others could lead to “a new way” of thinking about poverty:

We know all we need to know about the massive social and economic forces bearing down on the poor and making their ascent so difficult. But why don’t we talk to those who have made that ascent, and find out what routes they took? And then we can begin to think about ways to redirect private and public support to the routes that work, and redirect individuals away from those that don’t.

That process suggests bipartisanship and compromise, but Woodson doesn’t mention such things in his column, and he doesn’t seem to have warm feelings about what would have to be a major player in bipartisan efforts, the Congressional Black Caucus. (He writes that they “let loose the cries of ‘racism!’” upon poor Ryan.)

The Atlantic’s Mike Konczal is skeptical of the Ryan initiative, “which seeks to devolve and shrink the federal government at a rapid pace.” In a lengthy history on “The Conservative Myth of a Social Safety Net Built on Charity,” Konczal writes that private charity is not capable of responding to economic downturns (charitable donations fell along with employment during the Great Recession of 2008) and nonprofit agencies can’t be ordered to fulfill identified needs. He goes back to the 1930s to illustrate his point:

The Hoover Administration’s initial response to the Great Depression was to supplement private aid without creating the type of permanent public social insurance programs that would arise in the New Deal. Hoover’s goal was to maintain, in the words of the historian Ellis Hawley, a “nonstatist alternative to atomistic individualism, the romantic images of voluntarism as more truly democratic than any government action, and the optimistic assessments of the private sector’s capacity for beneficial governmental action.” As President Hoover said in 1931, much like conservatives do today, any response to the economic crisis must “maintain the spirit of charity and mutual self-help through voluntary giving” in order for him to support it.

Noble as that goal may be, it failed. The more Hoover leaned on private agencies, the more resistance he found. Private firms and industry did not want to play the role that the government assigned them, and even those that did found it difficult, if not impossible, to carry out those responsibilities. The Red Cross, for instance, did not want to move beyond providing disaster relief. Other groups, like the Association of Community Chests and Councils, had no interest in trying to coordinate funds at a national, rather than local, level. Hoover understood that private charity wasn’t getting to rural areas, yet private charities couldn’t be convinced to meet these needs.

It’s possible that churches and nonprofit agencies are better equipped to deal with poverty today. They have access to the same research and data that the government does, and technological advances like online donations may help them to better determine need and distribute aid on a national basis.

But it’s hard to be optimistic about an all-organic, private approach to poverty when you see stories like this, about a church in Rockford, Illinois, banned from offering shelter from the cold because it doesn’t have the proper permits. ThinkProgress’s Adam Peck writes that this is a common occurrence:

Cities across the country have been cracking down on both the homeless and those who have tried to offer relief. In Raleigh, a church group was threatened with arrest for trying to provide dozens of free meals and hot coffee to the city’s homeless, and an Indiana restaurant was forced to end its practice of serving up free meals every Thursday by the city after neighboring businesses complained about the presence of poor people nearby.

The situation in Illinois is the latest example of a growing trend in municipalities across the country: the criminalization of homelessness as opposed to taking steps to address the fundamental problems that lead to it.

This is a problem that crosses partisan and ideological lines. Whether a Democrat or Republican, one of the chief imperatives of almost every city councilor and state legislator is to keep facilities that serve the poor out of the neighborhood. It doesn’t matter whether a government agency, a nonprofit, or a religious organization is going to run a homeless shelter (or a halfway house to reintegrate ex-convicts into society): Areas with effective political representation are going to fight it.

The NIMBYist obstacle to anti-poverty and “unleashed opportunity” programs seems to be something that both parties can work to dislodge. At least, this is an effort that wouldn’t offend either party’s basic ideology. In the political world, however, offending voters is the bigger sin.

Photo: Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chair of the House Budget Committee, speaks at Georgetown University in April 2012. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

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