Public Square

Community as the Solution to Poverty

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It would be convenient if money alone could solve the problem of poverty. As citizens of the modern age, it might make our lives simpler and our consciences clearer if simply increasing the share of our paycheck the government takes to redistribute to others would truly help the poor. The answer to poverty is not that easy.

In the developed world (and in much of the developing world), new government programs are often pitched as the next best hope for alleviating poverty and its symptoms. On paper, it seems that a rechargeable debit card, a steady welfare check, and the ability to have “free” access to medical care simply by standing in line for a while should meet people’s needs. However, research continues to show that humans cannot live by impersonal handouts administered by a bureaucratic system alone.

Nearly a century after economist William Beveridge’s proposed social reforms were enacted in Britain, the problems of poverty that he intended to eliminate still persist, as the costs to maintain the system continue to rise.

Hilary Cottam, a designer seeking to find solutions to poverty around the world, observes that despite its efficiency in spending money, “The welfare state can do little to ease either the anxiety or the material effects that modern poverty produces in our lives.”

In her recent book, Radical Help, Cottam outlines the results of the last decade or so of her work, where she set out to find better ways to alleviate poverty amid the complex labyrinth of social welfare programs in Britain.

Is Welfare Working?

Cottam’s quest began with a single question to social workers across an array of programs: Can you introduce me to a family whose life has been changed by your programs? The well-intentioned workers could not provide an example.

Despite the huge expense of the network of social programs designed to meet the physical needs of families enmeshed in poverty, none of the programs were effective in getting people out of the system long-term. As Cottam notes, “We had hoped for safety nets that would give us the weft and propulsion of a trampoline but instead we find we are woven into a tight trap.”

It is easy to get into the welfare system, but difficult to get out. This is, in part, because of the complexity of modern poverty. Cottam again explains, “Modern poverty is about money and about a breakdown in our social fabric, a rent in our relationships and our shared experience.” She goes on to show how many of the well-intentioned programs designed to alleviate poverty have encouraged the breakdown that has mired individuals and families in seemingly hopeless situations.

A More Effective Way Out

The book then documents five experiments Cottam and her team designed to offer a more dynamic and hopeful solution to modern poverty. They deal with rebuilding the lives of a family caught in poverty, assisting poor teens in gaining a vision for success outside of their slums, helping the unemployed and underemployed to learn skills and find a job, creating a social circle focused on health to reduce the symptoms of chronic illness, and building a social support network for the elderly.

Four of the five programs were deemed successes by both improving outcomes and reducing net long-term costs. Significantly, there were discernable, positive outcomes to Cottam’s experiments, which made them different than the various social welfare programs she was attempting to replace. The single failed program was eliminated because of concerns about putting teens into contact with adults outside of their family, which was deemed an unacceptable risk by the sponsors of the program.

Each of the programs was funded by grants, including some provided by the government. What made the programs more successful than the alternative was, according to Cottam, that they approached problems both relationally and holistically. She lists six characteristics of programs that are truly helpful in the twenty-first century:

  1. Offering a vision of the good life
  2. Helping people develop capability themselves
  3. Making relationships the white hot center of the program
  4. Connecting needs with multiple streams of resources, both private and public
  5. Creating the possibility of a way to success
  6. Allowing the system to be open to serve everyone, both the poor and the wealthy

Using these six principals as a framework, Cottam and her team designed and customized programs to particular situations. They recognized that the cookie-cutter, bureaucratic approach was ineffective.

As F. A. Hayek noted in The Road to Serfdom, “To produce the same result for different people, it is necessary to treat them differently.” The modern welfare state is largely built on the premise that widespread poverty can be solved by implementing more efficient industrial solutions. Cottam argues that this premise fails to account for the humanity of those it was created to serve.

Affirming Human Dignity and Creativity

In the process of trying to find an effective solution to poverty, Cottam stumbled on the importance of keeping human nature in view. Though her religious influences appear to be Buddhist, she continually bumps into what we might describe as biblical anthropology, for example, that humans are unique, that we are intended to be creative, and that we can flourish only in robust relationships.

As a result, all of Cottam’s solutions to poverty focus on rebuilding human relationships, designing solutions locally, and involving those helped in solving their own problems. Technology is not used to replace human relationships, but to foster them. Money is not used to eliminate the need for interaction, but as a means to encourage it.

In his essay in the IFWE volume, Counting the Cost: Christian Perspective on Capitalism, Michael Novak notes,

The big question in these matters is not whether the poor must be helped. It is not even whether the federal government should play a necessary role in providing that assistance. The answer to both those questions is ‘yes.’

The main question, rather, is how: What means and methods are best to do this?

It may be too soon to tell, but the methodology outlined in Cottam’s book, Radical Help, seems to have promise for designing poverty relief efforts that legitimately improve the condition of the poor by leveraging their own energy, the will of their communities, and empowering them to find a unique solution to their own problems.

Editor’s note: Read more about effective poverty relief programs in Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle the Poverty.

Help empower Christians with the biblical and economic principles that lead to human flourishing! Support IFWE today.


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