A New Way to Reduce Poverty: Limited Government and Maximum Compassion, by Michael A. Ferguson

A New Visions Commentary paper published September 1996 by The National Center for Public Policy Research, 20 F Street NW, Suite 700 , Washington, D.C. 20001, (202) 507-6398, Fax (301) 498-1301, E-Mail [email protected].

One of the best and most rewarding experiences of my life was teaching high school in the Bronx. The students at Mount St. Michael Academy on E. 241st Street come from typical urban families, many of them racial and ethnic minorities. They do whatever it takes both to survive in the city and to receive a quality education.

Neither of these is easy in today’s Bronx. But there is a plan currently in Congress that would address some of the problems our urban citizens face today, and it should reignite the policy debate regarding urban renewal.

The plan, better known as “Saving Our Children: The American Community Renewal Act of 1996,” was authored by Representatives Jim Talent (R-MO) and J.C. Watts (R-OK). Both men are familiar with the problems facing the urban poor in this country. Rep. Talent was a principal author of a welfare reform bill two years ago, and Rep. Watts, an African-American with close ties to black communities throughout the nation, has made it one of his goals to explore new ways of addressing the plight of the nation’s urban poor. While the plan is no panacea for Americans beneath the poverty level, it is aimed at encouraging all citizens to come together to assist one another through programs proven to be successful. “Saving Our Children: The American Community Renewal Act of 1996” is expected to be voted on in the House sometime before the November elections.

Americans should follow the advice of Pope John Paul II to embrace both subsidiarity and solidarity to bring political and economic power closer to people’s lives in a caring and compassionate spirit of “suffering with the poor.” By encouraging our political institutions to embrace these concepts, we can more fully understand our responsibility to help free those burdened by tyrannical political programs to embrace their human dignity.

“Saving Our Children: The American Community Renewal Act of 1996” attempts to bring us closer to that goal through four separate components. First, it would establish “renewal communities urban pockets of poverty subject to substantial exemptions from various forms of taxes, zoning, and other regulations. In addition, employers throughout the nation that hire high-risk workers will be granted the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. High-risk is defined as AFDC or food stamp recipients and their families; economically disadvantaged veterans, ex-felons, and high-risk youth; vocational rehabilitation referrals; and qualified summer youth employees. Thus, businesses and organizations would be encouraged to employ these individuals, keeping them off the streets and offering them renewed life opportunities.

The second component of the legislation is a school choice provision that would allow poor parents to provide an appropriate, quality education for their children. Localities will not qualify as “renewal communities” if they refuse to offer school choice as part of their renewal efforts. The bill provides scholarship assistance for tuition and transportation costs to public, charter, private, and religious schools. Each locality would be forbidden to discriminate against religious schools in any manner.

The third component of the plan provides tax credits for charitable giving to organizations that are engaged in direct assistance to the poor: for 75 percent of contributions of up to $200 per person or $400 for a joint-filing household. The fourth component of the plan offers assistance to neighborhood groups that provide successful drug treatment and drug counseling activities.

We have a responsibility to recognize the needs of the “least of our brothers and sisters” and to develop innovative and effective ways of assisting them in meeting those needs. Our commitment to the poor is a substantial part of our rich heritage. Public policy solutions frequently have failed to address this commitment properly, and those who argue for a public-private partnership to address these problems will surely welcome this community renewal proposal as a breath of fresh air.

For the families of my former students in the Bronx and others like them, it may be the respirator that gives them another chance.

by Michael A. Ferguson, Executive Director of the Catholic Campaign for America. He originally wrote this article for the Catholic magazine Crisis.


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