Is There Room in the GOP Tent for the Poor?

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks recently suggested that the G.O.P. is way off base in their assumptions about the moral arguments that resonate most with the American people.  Their focus on the economic advantages of capitalism and “values-voter” issues like abortion and gay marriage miss the mark, Brooks suggests.  Instead, Republicans must convince the electorate that they are just as concerned about the plight of the poor and downtrodden as Progressives, and further that Republican policies are more effective at addressing these problems than those implemented by the Liberal nanny state.

Mr. Brooks cites several statistics indicating that the American people by and large reject the notion of compassionate conservatism.  Right or wrong, Brooks writes, the perception is that Republicans don’t care about the poor, and when it comes to politics, perception is reality.  He is absolutely correct.  But how can the G.O.P. change this narrative?  How can they combat the perception that the only people they care about are Wall Street fat cats and upwardly mobile suburban yuppies?

The answer, Brooks suggests, lies in making “improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies.”  He explains:

“For example, the core problem with out-of-control entitlements is not that they are costly – it is that the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare imperils the social safety net for the neediest citizens.  Education innovation and school choice are not needed to fight rapacious unions and bureaucrats – too often the most prominent focus of conservative education concerns – but because poor children and their parents deserve better schools.  Defending a healthy culture of family, community and work does not mean imposing an alien “bourgeois” morality on others.  It is to recognize what people need to be happy and successful – and what is most missing today in the lives of too many poor people.”

serving poor 2Indeed, Republicans would do well to affirm that society and government have obligations to those who are unable to help themselves.   America’s Judeo-Christian heritage richly reflects this principle.   It’s not all about the individual, or even freedom for freedom’s sake.  When Aristotle observed that “man is by nature a political animal” he was alluding to our fundamentally contingent nature.  From the moment we are born, we exist in codependent relationships.  As infants and children we rely on the care and protection of others for our survival.  As we age, we gradually achieve autonomy, at which point we become responsible for protecting others in our relational network, including family members, friends, and neighbors.  The American nation might be quite a large family, but it is a family nonetheless.  As Americans we are bound by shared traditions, shared citizenship, and a collective embrace of the values that guided our founding.  Those of us to whom much is given, as Holy Scripture dictates (and the President has reminded us), much is required.  The poor and downtrodden warrant the assistance of their more fortunate neighbors.  Christians above all should recognize this, since Jesus closely identifies with the poor and needy and admonishes the church to provide for them (Matt 25).

The question, then, is not whether we should help “the least of these,” it’s how When Republicans object to programs touted as beneficial to the poor, they must do a better job of explaining why.  Too often, the Progressive approach to social justice fails to solve the problem, and in many cases only makes matters worse.  In the name of “spreading the wealth around” or “leveling the playing field” (choose your populist slogan), government power is centralized, accountability and efficacy is lost in a labyrinth of bureaucratic red tape, chronic problems are entrenched and systematized, and an unhealthy codependence is established between the government and the individual.  An authentically conservative approach – a truly compassionate approach – emphasizes that efforts to help the poor should be designed to meet real needs and should focus on empowering those in need to help themselves.  They should not result in a culture of perpetual, multi-generational dependence and should not discourage recipients from taking initiative and working to get off the dole.  Nor should they insulate the beneficiaries of government assistance from the natural consequences of their actions.  (Benevolence divorced from a guiding moral standard does more harm than good, in the end.)  In short, government aid should meet the short term needs of beneficiaries while providing a pathway to independence.

Another critical piece of the equation for Republicans seeking to alter public perception of the G.O.P. is a question of principle.  Everyone knows how Washington works.  It’s a quid pro quo, dog-eat-dog world unto itself, and if you aren’t willing to play the political game you won’t last long.  This has to change.  Things like principle and integrity must be more than stump speech fodder, they must lie at the heart of action.  As it stands currently, politics is a vicious war, and to the victor go the spoils.  Crony capitalism and the culture of “too big to fail” is standard operating procedure in Washington, regardless of what side of the aisle you sit on.  Is it any wonder that more and more people have become disillusioned and disgusted by politics, that Congress’ approval rating is so dismal?

The point is, it is not the place of government to have its thumb on the scale of success and opportunity in America.  Government should not punish the successful nor artificially elevate the poor.  What government exists for is to secure a free sphere within which every person has an equal opportunity to exercise their God-given talents for the betterment of themselves and mankind.  This is the surest guarantee of the greatest possible success for the greatest number.  History bears this out.  Regimes based on class warfare and retributive social policies have proven to be some of the most oppressive and deadly, as our European cousins know all too well.  Republicans can become better at articulating this message without betraying their core principles.  The G.O.P. is truly the party of equal opportunity for all and compassion for those in need.  Progressives talk a good game, but underneath the inflammatory rhetoric is a power-hungry machine that merely wishes to prey on the emotions of the people in order to consolidate more power.

The G.O.P. needs better messengers, no doubt, but in the end it lies with the American people to see through the gimmicks.


Article courtesy of Center for a Just Society

Image credit:

Ken Connor


Ken Connor is the Chairman of the Center for a Just Society. An esteemed attorney, Connor is affiliated with the law firm of Marks, Balette, & Giessel, a firm nationally known for its successful representation of victims of nursing home abuse and neglect.

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  • InnocentUntilProvenGuilty

    It should be pointed out that if one commits cold-blooded murder, one of the most serious crimes there is, s/he is considered innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of civil law. Even after conviction, s/he is fed and otherwise provided for at taxpayer expense for the rest of his/her life if sentenced to life in prison. Even if sentenced to death, s/he is similarly provided for up until the execution is carried out, which can often be years later. In either case, the length of time that one is provided for at taxpayer expense is often much longer than the five-year lifetime time limit on eligibility for receiving welfare that we now have.

    It is time to insist that innocent until proven guilty also apply to ALL the economically vulnerable. This ought to be the case anytime but especially during an economic downturn. Even if some such victims do deserve some blame, the presumption ought to be on the side of assuming that they do not deserve blame. In other words, the burden of proof ought to be on the side of showing that the victim is to blame, if that is the case. Similarly, on the question of the deserving versus the undeserving poor, the presumption ought to be on the side of being DESERVING in case of doubt. In other words, the burden of proof ought to be on the side of showing that a poor person is undeserving, if that is the case.

    Also, especially during an economic downturn, the presumption ought to be that unemployment is not the fault of the individual. In other words, the burden of proof ought to be on the side of showing that unemployment is the fault of the individual, if that is the case. It is time to DEMAND a TOTAL STOP to the presumption that, even in a recession, unemployment is still considered to be the fault of the individual. There is ABSOLUTELY NO EXCUSE for the refusal of the Republican Party to give the benefit of the doubt to the poor and unemployed during the latest economic downturn.

    Even if individual fault can be proven in the cases above, the faults cannot possibly be serious enough to warrant capital punishment. Practically speaking, the deliberate denial of the basic necessities of life to someone, such as denying food to those who refuse to work, is a form of capital punishment. Laziness cannot possibly be serious enough to warrant capital punishment.

    In an economy where there are not enough jobs to go around, some minimum income MUST be provided even to those who do not work. It is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE to have any time limits whatsoever on the provision of such income. Such time limits violate the presumption of innocent until proven guilty, and unjustly impose the practical equivalent of capital punishment for actions that cannot possibly be that serious. Also, as long as we are spending tax dollars on life sentences for convicted murderers, who are just about the least deserving people there are, taxpayer cost is not a valid excuse for failing to provide such a minimum income. It is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE to deny anyone else rights that even convicted murderers have for reasons of behavior.

    A good starting point for providing such a minimum income would be to convert the standard deduction and dependency exemption from tax deductions into 100%REFUNDABLE tax credits. In addition, the child tax credit ought to be 100% refundable. That way, even those who earn too little to owe income tax, including those with no income at all, would get the full benefit of those tax breaks. Most of the incentive problems of welfare would appear to be the result of means testing. Since the benefits of 100% refundable tax credits would not be means tested, the rules for claiming them would be the same for both the poor and the middle class, the incentive problems of means testing ought to be avoided, or at least significantly reduced.

  • Max

    The problem may be that the Republicans stance against the welfare state is in fact the right one, the Christian one, and the Biblically defensible one.

    This video makes a strong case as to how the welfare state is responsible for so much poverty and suffering.

  • Victoria

    It’s complicated. But I would still be on welfare if i had not been forced to seek work back when my children entered school, though I was terrified of entering the workforce.. I chose to go to school, studied an in-demand profession and now support myself and several other people. Allowing people to stay on welfare when they can work does them a disservice. Supplying training and education helps them much more. Who are the deserving poor? — the disabled and women with small children, for awhile.

  • FamilyCapsProAbortion

    I must consider any penalties whatsoever for pregnancy, childbirth, or single motherhood to be pro-abortion. Therefore, I must consider any attempts whatsoever to re-stigmatize out-of-wedlock pregnancies, childbirths, and single mothers to be pro-abortion. Our first priority in such cases has to be to minimize the risk of abortion. Abortion is a much greater evil than unmarried sexual activity.

    Praying aside, it would seem that we are going to have to rely primarily on abstinence education to deal with unmarried sexual activity, although we may also need to do a better job of protecting women from sexual exploitation, especially those who are poor. At the very least, aside from praying, abstinence education, and protecting women from sexual exploitation, the problem of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and childbirths may have to wait until after abortion has been successfully outlawed.

    The abortion issue ought to make it clear that the problem of unmarried sexual activity will have to be solved by some other means besides punishing the woman after she is pregnant. The fact that a pregnancy is out of wedlock is absolutely no excuse for abortion. When it comes to out-of-wedlock pregnancies and childbirths, avoiding the further sin of abortion simply must have priority over punishing any prior sexual sins.

    Also, if a woman was raped or is being sexually exploited, punishing pregnancy and childbirth does nothing to address the rape or sexual exploitation. Furthermore, Catholic moral teaching makes it clear that contraception is also an ABSOLUTELY IMMORAL means of reducing the number of babies born out of wedlock.

    If all abortions stopped tomorrow, the number of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and childbirths would undoubtedly increase, at least in the short run, since I believe that most abortions are currently being performed on unmarried women. Therefore, honest opposition to abortion requires a willingness to put up with more out-of-wedlock pregnancies and childbirths in return for fewer abortions.

    When politicians complain about out-of-wedlock pregnancies and childbirths, it is extremely probable that they favor using abortion and/or contraception as the means of dealing with the problem. For this reason, I must automatically exclude from being pro-life any politician who complains about the number of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and childbirths, unless they make it clear that they COMPLETELY OPPOSE abortion, contraception, or any post-conception penalties as the means of dealing with the problem.

    Any penalties for unmarried sexual activity need to be limited to cases that do NOT involve pregnancy so as to avoid the danger of abortion, and they need to treat men and women as nearly equally as possible. At the very least, such penalties need to be taken care of BEFORE any pregnancy is known. In most cases, it may be necessary to just let God worry about the penalties for unmarried sexual activity, given the practical difficulties of proving it if there is no pregnancy, and the danger of encouraging the much greater evil of abortion if there is a pregnancy.

    By the same token, I must also consider to be pro-abortion such welfare reforms as the family cap, where if a woman on welfare has more children, her welfare payments do not increase. Such a provision sends the message that babies conceived out of wedlock by welfare mothers ought to be aborted, will tempt them to abort such babies instead of allowing them to be born, and are therefore pro‑abortion. Working families have dependency exemptions and child tax credits to help them with raising children. So much for the claims of Republicans and conservatives to oppose abortion. I am completely mystified that mainstream pro-life organizations do not see that family caps are pro-abortion.

    Similarly, I must consider the firing of Catholic school teachers for out-of-wedlock pregnancies and childbirths to be pro-abortion. Such firings will probably prompt some other women in the same situation to abort their babies before their pregnancies become known. Moral clauses in their contracts ought to also apply to abortion; indeed they ought to give higher priority to preventing abortion, since abortion is a much greater evil than unmarried sexual activity. Even if such firings are legal, they are still pro-abortion. If the same sexual activity occurs WITHOUT pregnancy, and could be proved somehow, I would have no objection to such firings.

    At the very least, if working families get things such as dependency exemptions and child tax credits to help them support their children, those same benefits ought to be available to welfare recipients as well. The only way that can happen is if the benefits of the dependency exemption and the child tax credit apply even to those with little or no income. In other words, these benefits MUST be made available even to those who are not working.

    The simplest way to do that would be to make the dependency exemption and the child tax credit 100%-REFUNDABLE TAX CREDITS. This also means that I must automatically exclude from being pro-life and pro-family those who favor abolishing the income tax, unless they explain how they would provide the benefits of the dependency exemption and child tax credit without it. The dependency exemption and child tax credit, even in their current forms, are extremely important pro-family provisions.

    Why hasn’t the dependency exemption been made a 100%-refundable tax credit, instead of a tax deduction? Why isn’t the child tax credit 100%-refundable? Such steps have become ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY requirements for being pro-life as a result of family caps.

  • Jagnote

    What irks conservatives (of which I am one) is the fact that in the U.S. there are really not that many “poor” people. When I pay $100/month for a cell phone and then see on the news a minority who has gotten SIX free phones, I begin to wonder who is really poor. In the area in which I live it is common knowledge that a large number of people are living off of unemployment, food stamps, etc. and making absolutely no effort to find work. The government hands out money they have taken from me (I’ve worked every day of my adult life) to people who have no values except sex and drugs and makes absolutely no effort to follow up and determine that the money is really needed and used for what it is intended. What the conservatives are trying to get across is that individuals must take responsibility for their own well being. Of course there needs to be a safety net for those who really need it but unlike the secular progressives, we don’t whine over people who are leeches on society. At some point even the Church has fallen into the trap of replacing God with the “poor”. St. Paul said that one who doesn’t work should not eat. No where in the New Testament have I found Christ directing his apostles to go to the Roman government and demand that they take care of the poor. Where we used to have a military/ industrial complex in this country we now have a Catholic social justice/secular progressive complex. And the coin of this realm is that the Church is being pressured to default on its most deeply held truths such as life and the sacredness of marriage.

  • CT

    I am not one to bash my Church. I love my faith and the Catholic Church. But, in the last 3 decades, it has seeded much of it’s responsibilities to care for those who are most in need to government. That is the HUGE elephant in the room that can no longer be ignored. The Catholic Church in the U.S. (and Europe) has allowed state and federal government money to become a weapon that is now being used against it. Until the Church stops kowtowing to government and starts embracing and serving the needs of the truly needy (and not just the temporally needy, but the spiritually as well), we have no hope of stopping this dangerous tide of entitlement dependency. The beauty of Christ’s words and life on earth was His simplicity. Enter Pope Francis, and I for one am in prayer for him daily.