An agenda of compassion that works

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The president submitted a domestic budget this week that slows increases in domestic programs. Rather than evaluating the changes, critics will claim they are hard-hearted.

Welfare reform tells us the Beltway definition of compassion — how much money is appropriated to an existing program — misses the point.

We con-coms worry about how policy affects vulnerable populations, including the 18 million children at risk of not reaching productive adulthood. The obstacles they face make it unlikely they will experience the American Dream, eroding civil society and the common values that hold our cities and country together.

Programs should be cut or increased based on how likely they are to change these conditions. The last four years brought a quiet transformation in how government delivers social services to the disadvantaged. “Compassionate conservatism” neither dismissed the obligations of the federal government nor allowed it a monopoly on good deeds.

The underlying belief is that most people have the capacity to run their own lives to be self-governing citizens, not passive clients of government. The work of compassion is not funding more government programs delivered through failing, distant bureaucracies, but unleashing more citizens and charities and insisting on results.

We do not need to federalize citizen service, but to ensure that sensible federal investments leverage additional volunteers who produce outcomes such as improving literacy, and helping more children reach productive adulthood. Presidential leadership, a surge in interest by young adults and new service initiatives helped mobilize 65 million regular volunteers last year, up 6 million from the year after September 11, and helped produce a record number of national service participants, supporting efforts such as City Year, Earth Conservation Corps and Habitat for Humanity. Partisan battles put these programs at risk.

Civic health also depends on the strength of community institutions, and faith-based groups remain the predominant neighborhood organization. We should understand that in some cases the key element that helps transform lives for the better is faith, while recognizing that faith-based institutions are effective partners in delivering social services apart from the lessons they preach. While more than $1 billion has been opened up for faith-based institutions that are showing results in helping the disadvantaged, the legislative agenda has languished to the detriment of the poor and suffering.

Compassionate conservatism also recognizes government’s responsibility to help those with special needs, but in a way that moves them toward independence. In specific areas — drug treatment, adoption and foster care, Americans with disabilities, homeownership, education and more — the compassion agenda is true to principle and showing good progress.

To realize the full potential of the compassion agenda, here’s what might be done:

Focus on core values. The best poverty prevention is reducing teen pregnancy and strengthening families. The recently signed welfare reauthorization values marriage and work. More needs to be done to support abstinence education, encourage fathers to stay connected to their families, and get more children to finish high school and find productive work.

Congress should make permanent the USA Freedom Corps legacy — in domestic, homeland security and international programs — so the armies of compassion can continue to be deployed. Congress might also require government agencies to produce “civic impact statements” to spur them to leverage government resources to dramatically expand volunteers who could tap both the first wave of Baby Boomers and the surge of youthful volunteers.

Congress should revitalize the faith-based initiative, making vouchers more widely available so that individuals can choose social services that are best for them. Congress also should support interfaith partnerships to tackle tough problems, which would help the needy and foster peace among religions that share a common Abrahamic tradition. In both cases, government could not be accused of funding religion.

Congress and the Bush administration should reach an additional 2 million children, including children of prisoners, with caring adult mentors, and fund school-based and faith-based groups that can rapidly produce mentors in low-income communities. Mentoring has been shown to improve academic performance and reduce risky behaviors.

The future of the compassion agenda will require smarter policies to help those prosperity has left behind. The poor and needy are the quiet constituency. All the more reason that members of Congress, governors and other policy-makers should embrace the compassion agenda and stake a leadership claim on helping those most in need in their districts and states.

John M. Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, served as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Bush. Stephen Goldsmith, chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service and a professor at Harvard University, served as domestic policy adviser for Bush for President.

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