Overcoming Poverty: Beginning with the End

Policy proposals to overcome domestic poverty have been largely absent from the most recent electoral cycles. Acting on the advice of campaign advisors, presidential hopefuls have instead outlined their agendas for middle class voters. In the 2016 campaign season, presidential candidates will be asked by Christian leaders to specifically articulate their agendas for overcoming domestic poverty.

Shifting the focus to policy prescriptions has the potential to clarify the distinctive visions of candidates. This in turn has the potential to equip citizens to consider the well-being of the entire political community and not just vote their own interests.

But shifting the focus of presidential campaigns is insufficient in and of itself to overcome domestic poverty. Good sound bites and good policy prescriptions often seem irreconcilable. Yet the real challenge to overcome is not one of rhetoric, but of direction.

Policy prescriptions are most often made by looking back and assessing what has worked and what has not. It is easy to evaluate charts and metrics that measure shifts in median income, graduation rates, and higher birth weights. Each is an important indicator of particular means; they are measuring the success of methods. Indicators moving in a particular direction are not in and of themselves assurances of success relative to the intended result. They are not measures of accomplishing the ends.

Christians must indeed work to equip fellow citizens and government officials to develop good means to overcome domestic poverty.  But I suggest that this work begins not by looking back, but by looking forward -- by first asking and then articulating our answer to the question: what is the end result we seek to achieve? Then we work backwards to develop the means and measures that are aligned towards achieving that end.

Is the end result we seek different than overcoming domestic poverty?  I say yes. The end we seek is human flourishing.

Public Justice and Human Flourishing

The direct Biblical mandate for Christians is to care for the poor, coupled with a strong vision of every person created in and bearing God’s image. This looks like a society where all human beings are able to flourish and make their fullest contributions to the development of the world. This is bigger than the poor climbing the economic ladder into the middle class. This is bigger than better health outcomes. Human flourishing is bigger than growing contributions to the GDP. 

Good public policy can contribute to human flourishing – but good public policy isn’t the end we’re called to seek on behalf of our neighbors. Good public policy is a means – one way – to pursue that end. A whole host of contributions towards human flourishing are also to be made by institutions other than government. 

“Is the end result we seek different than overcoming domestic poverty? I say yes. The end we seek is human flourishing.”

 Additionally, what we bring to the political community as Christians is to suggest a broader way of developing and measuring public policy means. Most public policy, even good public policy, is the product of utilitarian calculations which ask how to do the most good for the most people. But human flourishing is articulated as for the good of all – for each individual of course, but also for society as a whole, such that the very structure of society works to support human flourishing.

This is not to say that we’re working at cross-purposes with those who are focused on economics, better health outcomes, GDP, and doing the most good for the most people. I believe that there is ample common ground in the public policy means that may be developed to support human flourishing.

But with human flourishing as our end, our involvement as citizens requires more. We must help develop and measure public policy means that support the direct work of government as well as government’s role in supporting other institutions in making their fullest contributions to human flourishing.  We must also work to articulate the contributions these institutions make towards the good of all and the structure of society as a whole.

Citizenship and Human Flourishing

So what does this look like? I offer three recommendations of contributions Christian citizens can make that can best support this vision. 

First, we need to articulate what human flourishing looks like, lest we settle for policy solutions that fall far short. CPJ does a lot of work with Christian young adults between the ages of eighteen and thirty, many of whom are well-educated and economically mobile. Most of these young adults are initially quite content to call themselves “politically homeless.” Rejecting the tone or agenda of Christian political engagement that has felt more politically partisan than distinctively Christian, they have chosen a sabbatical from politics.

While that attitude can appear benign, it is in fact quite malignant. I am deeply troubled that many of these politically homeless Christian young people are rapidly becoming what we call “libertarians by default” – they see no helpful role for government in contributing to human flourishing.  They trust nongovernmental solutions to poverty that are naïve about the need for functioning political communities in order for those NGOs to make their important contributions. This is in part because they have watched their leaders fail to do the hard work of articulating a robust vision for human flourishing.  Christians must make plain to our fellow citizens and government officials that we are not simply baptizing a particular public policy agenda or means, but rather how the policies are aligned towards the advancement of human flourishing.

Second, we need to call on fellow Christians to serve our neighbors in ways that extend beyond tangible acts of mercy. Christians also serve as citizens in the political community we share with others. For some, because government seems so dysfunctional, there is no urgency behind policy-driven efforts to overcome domestic poverty, even though they are deeply committed to serve the tangible needs of their neighbors.  

In our education reform work, we’ve found Christians serving as volunteer tutors for kids in terrible schools who had never had someone make the connection to serving their neighbors as citizens. One tutor shared about a moment of insight she had after learning more about what it means to be a citizen in a shared political community, “I’ve been tutoring for twenty years, and I’ve always skipped the school board section of the ballot, because it’s not my kid.” We have the impulse to serve, but not necessarily the impulse to serve as citizens. We need to change that.

How we articulate our role as citizens in the political communities we share is crucial in how we work alongside others in developing the right means to address the myriad policy challenges of our time. If we believe God’s plan is for the flourishing of every human, we cannot be concerned only with our own interests. We can and must lead here.

Third, we need to make plain that the means to achieve human flourishing are multifaceted.  We need to help articulate the right role for government.

Government has an important role to play in overcoming domestic poverty.  We must help fellow Christians to particularly understand that government isn’t the enemy but also isn’t the total solution. Government can and must do things to support and not hinder the work of other institutions to contribute to human flourishing.

In order to discern what is best for government to do in a given situation related to overcoming poverty, we must identify at what level the solution is best enacted.  Christian tradition has articulated this as the principle of subsidiarity. Further Christian thought has articulated the principle of public justice, which prompts us to discern the right role for government. Does a particular effort require more direct government provision? Does it require government to do more to articulate and uphold the space for nongovernmental institutions (e.g. congregations, families, businesses, faith-shaped nonprofits and the like) to make their fullest contributions? As is often the case, does it require ensuring both?   

These are the tasks before us as citizens and policy makers as we begin the work of Christian political engagement with human flourishing as our end.

Questions for Reflection:

1)       How do you understand the idea of human flourishing? In what ways is this similar to or different than the public policy goal of overcoming domestic poverty?

2)       What changes do you need to make in order to respond to the Biblical mandate to care for the poor to both serve tangible needs and serve your neighbors as a citizen?

3)       Examine one public policy focused on overcoming domestic poverty in light of the discernment questions about what government should do.

- Stephanie Summers is Chief Executive Officer at the Center for Public Justice.