So, as an official bleeding-heart conservative, let me say a few things about poverty and religion.
Being Poor is not the same thing as Being Broke.
People may become broke (without money) for any number of reasons. And they can always get a job, work hard, save, and so on to get back on their feet. Being broke is a transitory condition.
People may be chronically broke -- that is, come from family circumstances where nobody has much money -- and still succeed financially. There are plenty of rags-to-riches stories out there, and they are really true. That's the wonderful thing about America. Nobody is trapped in one's past, or permanently handicapped by a lack of startup funds or education.
So why do some people stay stuck in straitened circumstances their whole lives -- and, more to the point, why do we see this lack of success imitated generation after generation? Why are whole communities stuck in the economic Twilight Zone?
The answer is that Poverty is a spiritual condition, not an economic one. Poor people start out as poor kids, whose lives are inundated with chaos. Meals are irregular and frequently deficient. Adults come and go in their lives. Changes of address are frequent and abrupt. There is no regular time to get up or go to bed. Violence and early death are normal conditions. School and work and public life are not avenues to success, but merely backdrops against which the intense socio-drama they have been unwittingly cast in is played out.
Poor people are not generally lazy people. They work harder to keep up than anybody I know. But their efforts are all geared toward mere survival, not advance. They don't know how to advance. Even if someone dumps a bunch of money on them -- or through their talent, they become the mega-super-star athlete or entertainer or whatever they'd like to be -- they don't know how to handle money, and they either spend it unwisely or they get ripped off by parasites. Some few discover capitalism through drugs or the sex trade -- but they cannot seem to take the same entrepreneurial skills and make a living at honest work.
Poor people are those folks who have internalized the craziness of their environment. This is why they are trapped in poverty, generation after generation. They may be smart, they may be nice, they may wish with all their hearts to escape the grinding weariness of their condition, but all their efforts are like beating the air.
It used to be that people came to this country with nothing, but their kids made a better life than their folks. But they had internal resources to draw on, if not external resources. That's the point. Poverty means your internal resources are all screwed up.
Giving does not always = helping
And this is why giving people things -- money, clothes, food, whatever -- may help them survive, but not advance. Fletcher Place Community Center in Indianapolis started out as a typical anti-poverty community resource funded by The UMC. It was a handout-oriented place. Its current director, Rev. Jessi Langlie, has been remaking it into a place where people can find the resources to get OUT of poverty.
Fletcher Place does all the giveaway ministries -- the immediate relief, the help with housing and clothes and food and child care -- but they will only help each person so often and so many times, unless that person signs up for one of their "Survival Skills" courses. In these courses, men, women, and youth learn about building good success habits and about dealing with their own histories which sabotage their success (there's a lot of abuse and other hurts in most of these folks' background).
Fletcher Place's mission is "breaking the cycle of poverty through the compassion of Jesus Christ." Note the goal: breaking the cycle of poverty. Compassion without cure simply subsidizes the agony of the poor. Too many compassionate folks do only relief ministries, and they wind up simply enabling people's dysfunctions. These are the people I call "Poverty Pimps." (The high-ranking Religious Left I have called "Professional Pastoral Poverty Pimps.")
Poverty Pimps get to congratulate themselves on being magnanimous. Or righteous. And they figure they've earned the right to speak FOR the poor TO the larger society. They become "advocates" for the poor. Note that the Poverty Pimps do not enable the poor to speak FOR THEMSELVES. They act as patrons, and expect the same deference -- from the poor, and from other powermongers -- that any patron would do in a Third World country.
Welfare vs. Charity
Let's say you want to do something about poverty. To whom do you assign the task?
Well, if you want the administration of available resources TO BE FAIR, you have the Federal government do it. It'll cost you a buttload of money, and a lot of it'll be wasted, but everybody everywhere will have a uniform set of criteria to get help.
On the other hand, if you want the administration of available resources TO BE WITHIN BUDGET, you have State or local government do it. These may not be as comprehensive in nature, and it may be possible to game the system more easily. But when the budgeted money runs out, it's done. State and local government don't have an open-ended checkbook, so the whole government will not wind up busting the budget on this one item.
But if what you want is for the administration of available resources TO BE EFFECTIVE, then religious organizations are what you want to encourage. Religious orgs (like churches) can pick and choose which clients they will help in which ways (they don't have to be "fair" in that way). This means they can deny help to people who refuse to confront their dysfunctions, and concentrate their help on people who want to actually escape poverty.
As for budgetary issues, charities spend money differently from governments. They will lavish funds on things that secular people think are off-the-point, and then scrimp on other things (like employee benefits) to make more available to meet the needs of the people to whom they minister. This is because the PRIMARY desire of any religious organization is to glorify God. The secondary RESULT of glorifying God is that the poor are helped, the lost found, the unjust confronted, etc.
Secular people don't understand this. They keep wanting religious charities to act like huge, bureaucratic government agencies. And they keep wanting religious people to promise not to act religious, or promote religion, while they help people. But to do this is to make charities just like government. Which means they can be either "fair" or "within budget," but not "effective."
The effectiveness of the religious ministry comes from the workers' and donors' view of what life is all about. They are helping others as part of their life dedicated to glorifying God. Those who discover that there is more to life than survival -- that there is success, and beyond success, the joy of glorifying God in your life -- escape poverty completely, and then can help others do so, too.
All of this is what sociologists of religion call the phenomenon of "Redemption and Lift." It is perhaps best exemplified in the ministry of John Wesley and the Methodists. Wesley's movement virtually created the Middle Class in Great Britain. Those left out of 18th-Century England's success were evangelized and discipled. Wesley taught them to obey the law (even the smugglers), to work and save and give (even the poor), and above all to foster their desire to experience the grace of God and glorify him in everything they did. The secondary results were a) a huge economic advance for those who had joined in the revival, and b) probably why England never had the destructive sort of revolution France endured.
I am politically conservative, but I'm all for helping the poor. I am theologically orthodox, but I believe that how we treat "the least of these" is a measure of our devotion to Christ. But I want my efforts to count for something. I'm interested in actually helping people, not advancing the careers of the Poverty Pimps.
I think that the Federal government should provide a small safety net, because they'll be fair about it. I think that State and local governments should augment that with what they can provide within their budgets. But I am most concerned that religious folk just go out to glorify God. In the end, the most lasting benefits will come from their work. Secularists may be skeptical about that, but it's worked before. Who do you think started all those colleges and hospitals and orphanages and clinics that anchor most of our communities: government? Hah! A random sampling from our area would give you Good Samaritan Hospital; Methodist Hospital; Deaconess Hospital; Christ Hospital; Mercy Franciscan Hospital; Xavier University; Evansville U. (UMC); DePauw University (UMC); U. of Indianapolis (UMC); Hanover (Presbyterian); Earlham (Friends); St. Luke's; St. Elizabeth's; Jewish Hospital; Shriner's Hospital for Children; Masonic Home; Methodist Home; Glenburn Rest Haven (UMC); Central Baptist Hospital; Catholic Charities; The Society of St. Vincent dePaul; The Salvation Army; and on and on and on.