Syracuse University professor Arthur Brooks challenges perceived mainstream social orthodoxy in his new book, Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide – Who Gives, Who Doesn’t and Why It Matters. For generations it has been assumed that political and social liberals are generous towards the poor while conservatives are proverbial tightwads. At least since the days of Charles Dickens’ Scrooge this has been the popular view. Liberals continually remind us that they are the ones who really care about welfare since they promote the grandiose government solutions to the problem.
No one should doubt that government has a role to play in finding solutions. Private charity cannot do it all. But the question has always been what role government should have and how the solutions it creates should be paid for and then properly delivered. I believe government does best in this area when it administers welfare at the local level, where people know people and thus get involved with them personally. When welfare comes from a large bureaucratic government trickling downward through numerous agencies it repeatedly fails to accomplish what is promised. This is one reason why the Clinton reforms worked so well, even though there are still problems to solve.
Brooks challenges conventional wisdom about who really cares for the poor, showing that it is conservatives who give more to the needy. Each year, he notes, conservatives give 30% more to charity than liberals. And the more religious people are the more charitable they are likely to be. Believers are actually 57% more likely to help the homeless, for example, than secularists.
All of this leads me back to my observation above. Modern liberalism has come to equate compassion with large-scale federal solutions through government run programs. This has eroded a sense of personal responsibility and leaves many liberals out of touch with the truly poor and weak among us. (There are numerous exceptions thus I say “many” and not all.) We will have no sense of responsibility for our neighbor if the government is to do the job for us by using taxpayer money. And, as the National Review recently noted, “When conservatives say that low taxes and spending should be supplemented by a safety net that is privately funded, they put their money where their mouth is.”
In short, this research by Arthur Brooks underscores why I am repeatedly unimpressed with the solutions offered by Sojourners and Christians like Jim Wallis. Their heart is in the right place for sure. And they rightly remind us that the prophetic witness of Scripture matters profoundly to serious Christians. But what they mistakenly do is equate larger government involvement with actual solutions to the problem. I suggest a great gathering of religious conservatives and progressives might go a long way to airing out these differences for much good. I would love to see the good folks at Sojourners, and parallel conservative groups, stage such a meeting. The present stalemate, between the ideologies of the two political parties and their advocates, has created a false sense that each side clearly knows the real answers to these complex social and economic problems. I believe that we can have both free markets and morality. In fact, I believe this is the only way that we can retain personal freedom and social justice joined with real compassion and concern for the poor that will make a long term difference. Christians can do better and leaders ought to seek such solutions.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."