This is the first post in a series I am writing on finding common ground on difficult issues between the religious right and the progressive left. I have come to believe that the inability of the right and left to have reasoned discussion and compromise on issues is the most serious issue facing western democracies.
I am going to start with, what I believe is an easy one – helping the poor.
The Religious Right: This one is a no brainer for the religious right. Our responsibility to help the poor is pervasive throughout the bible. An obvious example: In Acts 20:35, “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
The Progressive Left: While the left does not have a ‘bible’ to clearly encapsulate their beliefs, you can infer many of their beliefs from the workings of their think tanks and policy institutions. The Centre for American Progress, one of the top US left-of-centre think tanks, consistently cites poverty reduction as one of the leading moral imperatives and practical necessities of our generation.
So, the left and right agree on the desirability and the need to reduce poverty. So what divides them. In my estimation, the man in points of division seem to be:
- who holds responsibility? The modern religious right, influenced by conservative politicians over the past 30 years make a case that ‘he who helps himself is best helped’. The right increasingly believe that individuals should be given the opportunity and tools to lift themselves from poverty: ‘a hand up, not a handout’ The left, not the other hand, are more comfortable with programs that provide subsidies, subsidized training and wages, affordable housing and welfare-style solutions. The Left: sometimes you need a handout to get a hand up.
- what is the role of government? Simply put, the left is comfortable with government-led solutions, even if that means big government programs. The right, they think government will screw it up, despite good intentions. The right prefers programs, to the extent they are needed, to be delivered through churches and community organizations.
The Common Ground:
We need to start by accepting that not all poor people are poor for the same reasons. Some are poor because they are lazy and they juts need a kick in the ass; some are poor because they lacked opportunity and good parenting; some are poor because of mental health or other conditions that make employment exceedingly difficult. Both the right and left seem to fixate on any one of these. But to move forward we need to acknowledge that these are all contributors.
So how to you address poverty in light of this real life complexity?
1. Guarantee a living wage for those who can and will work. We should have a minimum wage that incentivizes unemployed people to work, if they can. Corporate profits and the executive compensations have skyrocketed in comparison to low income earners’ wages. We can easily afford a higher minimum wage. This should not be criticized as wealth redistribution; every tax policy changes how wealth is allocated and this is not a bad thing.
2. Use government money to create programs to address route causes of poverty and unemployment. This includes subsidized housing (the single biggest determinant of steady employment is access to housing) and mental health treatment.
3. Negotiate program delivery through churches and community organizations: while government can design good programs, based on good evidence, they are bad at delivery. Program delivery works best when its local.