Compassionate conservatism: Not (totally) dead yet

September 13, 2012

The War on Poverty, Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) declared, has been a complete flop. "We appropriate dollars to failed programs," the House freshman said at a Thursday news event. "We appropriate failure."


(Getty Images)

While Southerland didn't single out any government programs, House Republicans have used that same rationale to justify major cuts to programs such as food stamps, proposing a $16 billion reduction in the farm bill that the House is deliberating this week. Similarly, Paul Ryan's budget would cut $3.3 trillion from low-income programs like Medicaid, food stamps and job training, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

There's significant outside evidence that government efforts have helped reduce poverty, although tax breaks may be more effective than cash transfers. But Republicans like Southerland believe that the government is doing it all wrong. Instead, he points to the "some of the incredible successes" of nonprofit and community organizations that rely on mentoring, cultural change and faith-based alternatives instead of direct government handouts.

In fact, government funding also goes to the organizations that Republicans like Southerland have championed. And the House GOP has gone out of its way to boost funding for some at-risk youth programs, even as they've cut direct assistance to the poor.

On Thursday, Southerland ceded the podium to groups supported by the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which provides training and technical assistance to anti-poverty alternatives. "Government programs believe that psychology calls it a mental or emotional disorder," said Jubal Garcia, a pastor at Outcry in the Barrio, a Christian rehab program in Texas. "But the Bible calls it sin, and we believe that Jesus is the answer."

But such conservative alternatives haven't necessarily cut all purse strings to the government. The Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, for one, received a $2.35 million grant from the Department of Justice in 2010 to fund its Juvenile Mentoring Program, which sends young people into schools. "The purpose of the grant is to expand and enhance the capacity of CNE’s ViolenceFree Zone program to provide mentoring services to high-risk underserved youth," the group explained in its 2010 report. "The funds will be used in Baltimore, Dallas, Milwaukee and Richmond, Va., and include training of some 100 full-time mentors and supervisory staff."

Bob Woodson, founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, downplays the role of the federal funds. "We receive a mininum of federal funds," he says, explaining that most of the organization's money is private. What's more, groups like Outcry in the Barrio have prided themselves on not receiving direct government funding.

That said, House Republicans have quietly tried to boost funding levels for programs carried out by outside groups like Center for Neigborhood Enterprise. In its 2013 appropriations bill, the House proposed to increase funding for the DOJ's Juvenile Mentoring Programs to $90 million — an increase over its 2012 funding of $79 million and well above the Senate's $61 million proposal, according to the National Criminal Justice Association.

Of course, such an increase is dwarfed by the magnitude of the cuts to low-income programs that the House is pushing for. In fact, the House budget would actually reduce DOJ funding for juvenile programs overall in 2013. But it's a small piece of evidence that, beneath the rhetoric, there's still an interest in redirecting government funds toward  social programs and alternative means of combating poverty.

"This is where we need to be investing," Woodson says. "The message is to find success, whether it's government or non-government."

Such developments are the remnants of the compassionate conservatism that George W. Bush had campaigned on, and which Jack Kemp — Paul Ryan's mentor — had trumpeted. But that message has largely fallen away as Republicans have turned the anti-poverty message into an anti-government one.

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Dylan Matthews · September 13, 2012