When it comes to poverty alleviation in our most struggling communities, both our public and our private efforts can let our suffering neighbors down. Public efforts are by their very nature faceless. They must assess the situation of an individual citizen entirely in terms of statistical facts like income or family size. Public assistance doesn’t pray with you in the middle of the night when there’s been a terrible crime on your street. Public assistance can’t walk with you when you’ve finally landed a job but your manager is infuriating. Nor can public assistance say no to you if you’re mired in addiction and need to be allowed to hit bottom. Public assistance can’t do these things because it’s not a person—it’s a system. The system can register you, send you a check, even create a jobs training mechanism. But it can’t know you and it can’t love you. It might even tell you to walk away from that promotion or from that relationship because, if you don’t, you’ll lose what it, the system, gives you. It can’t gain your trust over the course of years until you’re finally ready to tell it your own vision for your life and your neighborhood. And it won’t be there to work with you through all the frustrating details of starting that business or building those community gardens. It won’t because it can’t. It’s not in its nature.
On the other hand, as we learned from the Marvin Olasky’s classic The Tragedy of American Compassion, private, and often religious, poverty alleviation could do all these things well. And prior to a certain ideological shift in the mid-19th century, it did. One poor man might need prayer and a hot meal, another was sent to chop wood for a widow before he was fed, another young man might need to move in with a family and become part of their daily life. Because of the reality of deep personal presence, these sorts of prayerful distinctions could be made by those treating the poor person as an individual and not a category. Olasky describes how the rise of public assistance redefined the way we help the poor. It turned the complicated project of face-to-face ministry into the straightforward task of the soup kitchen. It put the nameless poor into a line and handed them what they needed merely to survive. Private philanthropy began to adopt this strategy lest it be accused of distinguishing between the “deserving” and the “undeserving poor.” But an unwillingness to treat alms like mere handouts need not be a condemnation of the person being refused. On the contrary, our earlier way of doing philanthropy looked for ways we could honor the dignity of a person by exchanging with him. If recipients have something to offer in a legitimate exchange, they are no longer mere “takers” but rather burgeoning businessmen or businesswomen. Exchange honors the thing in us that knows we have something to contribute and that resents being treated like we’re useless to our neighbors.
Lucas Rouggly, founder of the neighborhood stabilization ministry LOVEtheLOU in St. Louis, on whose board I sit, explains that nowadays we make it a full-time job to be poor. Food over here on this day, some clothes over there on that day, help with a utility bill somewhere else on another day. The system we’ve created is giving us the result we ought to expect: people whose days are filled with just getting by and who are becoming increasingly economically hopeless. They have a vision but no voice. Over time, the poverty mindset creeps in: “This is just the way things are. I’ll never get out. There’s no point in trying.” Meanwhile, we middle- and upper-income people can feel pretty good about our efforts. We offered that personal finance class on that one Saturday. We cleaned up that empty lot. We held that coat drive at work. We did … something. But often what we did was to “help” our struggling neighbors without really seeing them. In contrast, my friend Ismael Hernandez, founder and executive director of the Freedom & Virtue Institute, says, “I don’t care about your poverty—I care about you.” When we pursue the neighborhood stabilization model in St. Louis that I am about to describe, this is what we say to our neighbors: You’re not just some number to me. You’re not just a name on a list. I’m not helping you because a computer spat you out as a member of some statistically “relevant” group. As Dallas Willard would say, “You are a never-ceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.” You are made in the image of the living God. You have intellect and will! You have a little kingdom—your life—in which you get to choose.