Jennifer Marshall, Vice President of Family, Community, and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation, discussed the importance of looking at the social as well as the material aspects of Christ’s command to serve others at a Faith and Law forum on Capitol Hill on January 26, and what implications this has for the 50 year old war on poverty and the contemporary concern for social justice. To this end, she asked those present to consider the networks that bring people to the place they are in life, something that the state cannot duplicate through public assistance. This, she said, is the important asset of “relational capital.”
“We have it in abundance,” she said, and yet “we take it for granted.” To a substantial degree, relational capital causes the “opening [of] doors” in one’s life.
She supported her relational capital emphasis Biblically with James 1:27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Also James 2:1-9 says that we should not show partiality on the basis of wealth and treat the poor with dignity. From these passages Marshall derives the lesson that we ought to care for the “overall well-being” of people as well as for their material well-being.
She believes we have done well addressing material well-being. But it is concern for the “dignity and the overall well-being” of those in need which is the real deficiency of American society in addressing neediness. We need to remember that the people we are called to serve are made in the image of God, and are made for “shalom,” or true peace. Because people are made in the image of a triune God, they are made “relationally.” People “need to be in relationships, and the most fundamental of those relationships is the family.” We are created to work and “take responsibility for the world around us.”
Marshall pointed out that the U.S. government has spent $25 trillion on anti-poverty programs since the 1960s, and yet has not made people self-supporting. Clearly, more money for more “material resources” is not likely to take people out of poverty. Much of the problem with poverty in America, she believes, is the “absence of relational capital.” This is not helped by the breakdown of the family, and in particular, “father absence.” Marshall noted that when Daniel Patrick Moynihan published the Moynihan Report in the 1960s, the rate of birth to unwed mothers was 8 percent, while the unwed birth rate among blacks – his concern in compiling the report – was 25 percent. By contrast, after more than 50 years of anti-poverty programs, the unwed birth rate in America is about 40 percent, and that for American blacks is greater than 70 percent. This is devastating, because of the association of poverty with the absence or weakness of family ties. She said that a “child born outside marriage today is five times more likely” to be poor than a child born to a father and mother who are married to each other.
Against this, Marshall asserted that Christian faith “is based on restored relationships.” She recounted the story of an inner city drug dealer, who after becoming involved with a church that ministered in his impoverished neighborhood, turned his life to Christ, married the mother of his four children, and was mentored by an older Christian couple from an entirely different social stratum.
When there is public policy intervention to alleviate poverty, Marshall said that it should work in concert with human nature, not “against the grain of how we are created as human beings.” Government aid that discourages work, which she said is true of most anti-poverty programs, does work against the grain, since human beings are created to work. Government should not undermine marriage by making it “more advantageous for a single mother to stay single.” The government should also respect the religious liberty of social service providers, she said, as it did not do with organizations like Little Sisters of the Poor and with foster care and adoption agencies.
This writer would add that religious social services must conduct themselves according to religious standards; it is the state’s own doctrine of sexual self-determination which is dogmatic. Social services should be rooted in the truth about human beings, which is that they are not merely material beings who give finally irrational meanings to their lives, but creatures made in the image of God. Private social service providers should make decisions in dealing with people (i.e., discriminate) on the basis of truth, not state imposed doctrine.
Marshall mentioned the Woodson Center (formerly the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise), founded by her friend, Bob Woodson, as an especially good ministry to the poor. The Center attempts to identify and bring recognition and funding to effective neighborhood leaders and organizations tackling the toughest situations of crisis and poverty in various parts of the country. These community leaders are not credentialed experts, but are identified by three paradoxes that characterize their efforts and give them effectiveness. First, these leaders’ strength “comes through their own weakness.” Having faced the crisis of poverty and/or other crises associated with poverty themselves, they have “found hope beyond the circumstances that many would have expected to seal their fate.” Secondly, they have returned to situations of poverty to provide service to others. Quoting one leader, she said that their work involves “sacrificial intervention by loving adults to the point of extreme inconvenience.” This, it might be added, is the kind of attention that a parent gives a child. Thirdly, the community leaders associated with the Center “pursue dignity through discipline … they express love by requiring responsibility.” This too is a parental characteristic. Marshall observed that the influence of one person in a culture of poverty and crisis “has an extraordinary ripple effect.” People “tend to bring others in their life along with them” in recovery.
It could be observed here that it would be difficult for the state to duplicate such services, because state effort must be institutional, rule-governed, and in our current cultural and political environment, informed above all by the belief that those in poverty and poverty-related crisis situations are victims of society to be supported without disciplinary measures that might suggest personal responsibility (whether their own or that of other persons in their life) for their suffering.
Marshall then recounted Woodson’s observation of his experience with the welfare system in the case of his own relatives. Although the system was well intended and supporting unemployed poor people, it nevertheless undermined efforts of social service providers and relational networks to help people move out of poverty and become self-supporting, since people are entitled to means-tested benefits. Welfare reform was an enormous benefit in helping people move out of poverty, Marshall said, although it might be added that in the years since it was enacted (in 1996) the reform has been to some degree eviscerated.
Marshall said that “we do an injustice to our neighbors in need when we flatten them to the merely material.” She commended the contemporary concern for “social justice,” but said than in focusing on this we “should look at the holistic nature of human beings.” Christians should always remember that “the core of our faith is about a restored relationship with Christ.” This “should transform the way we look at other human beings.” If churches and other Christian organizations “are not spending their relational capital,” they should realize that “there is more that can be done.” She concluded that we are “called to serve those in need,” and the “call to care for the poor is the call to care for them as made in the image of God, made for shalom.”Google+