Friday, August 25, 2006

First Things -- The Blog

First Things (tagline "Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life") online seems to be morphing into a group blog of considerable diversity. For some time I have tracked the site mainly to pick up the stream of Fr. Neuhaus' commentary on just about anything and everything. (Words bubble out of the man as though he were James Joyce incarnate. It takes a lot of stamina to follow all he says, but it's usually worth the investment. And he is usually right, by the way.) But recently I have noticed contributions by several new people. Four or five posts daily makes me think First Things is changing to a bloggier format.

Please pay special attention to this piece by Michael Novak recalling his participation in what has become a bedrock classic in the annals of poverty studies, The New Consensus on Family and Welfare, published in 1987. Together with an elite group of other scholarly observers, Mr. Novak produced a retrospective of LBJ's War on Poverty programs, where it worked and where it failed. At the time it was printed Patrick Moynihan said it was good. That's all I need to know. He was one of the smartest men ever to sit in the Senate.

Novak ticks off a few bullet points from that work that need to be revisited by today's observers and policy wonks.

***We were the first to make prominent the term “dependency” as a better indicator than “poverty” for what was going wrong. [How many times have we seen immigrants hit our shores without a dime to their name and sail past card-carrying US citizens who were officially "poor"?]

***We showed how it was reasonable to discuss illegitimacy as an issue without racial invidiousness, since it was now afflicting whites in larger numbers (although, of course, at lower rates) than blacks. It could be found in growing numbers in white rural communities, as in Iowa, Nebraska, and the like. Besides, whatever one’s moral feelings about illegitimacy, no one could deny that it was becoming financially very costly for the government, for the hospitals, for youth unemployment (or worse, unemployability), and for the criminal justice system. Once you turned your attention to what was going on in different types of families, the facts spoke with lightning and thunder in their stark clarity.

*** We demonstrated for the first time that if a young couple did three things (this was the part that The Economist liked best), they had about a 93 percent chance of moving out of poverty:
– Complete high school (after all, it’s already mandatory, and it’s free)
– Work full time year-round, even at the minimum wage
– Get married and, even if not on the first try, stay married
Couples who did these three simple things had less than a 7 percent chance of remaining in poverty. You could look it up in the federal tables under “Characteristics of Poor Families, Households.”

***Then, looking toward the future, and a new period of social invention, we proposed about seventy different reforms in government legislation and regulation, as well as practical initiatives for active, caring citizens who mean by “compassion” not a feeling but a sharp eye on results.

It is an easy matter to blame government programs and policies for the failures of individual people and families, just as it is to blame schools and teachers for what appears to be an educational shambles.

Personally, I cannot take part in either form of blaming. In the end the values and character development that make or break an individual grow first in the nuclear family and derive the energy needed for survival from the same source. I cite as my authority bullet point number three above which says, in effect, finish school, go to work and keep working, and get married and stay that way.

What about that can even a simple person not understand? And what better place to advance those objectives than through churches? I don't know about the rest of the country, but I can report that in my part of the country there are grassroots-level churches on the trail of exactly those objectives. Many are transdenominational. Some are aspiring to become mini-megachurches (if there is such a term) and they are preaching a message of inner healing, personal responsibility and old-fashioned Christian love. In times of personal crisis individuals can turn to their church community for encouragement and support.

And if there are a few Elmer Gantries among their clergy, what's new about that? For the most part the clergy are as human as the rest of us, and to the extent that they come back into the light, they, too can be forgiven and returned to the mission which is, in the end, far more important than any individual backsliding.

That's part of why I remain an optimist.

There is an easy metric to find out if things are getting better. It's not school testing. It's not abortion stats. It's not government program stats. It's simply how many children are being born to unwed mothers and the divirce rate starts to decline. When those numbers turn around we can know that we are moving in the right direction and everything else will be alright.

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