What would a portrait of America look like, if we were a nation without faith? On a cold winter night, would there be enough warm beds to shelter the men, women, and children suffering from homelessness? Would cities struggle to rebuild following natural disasters: would houses remain leveled, would residents be able to return? Who would feed the hungry? Would there be enough warm clothing for children living in poverty? Would America be able to do enough, be enough, provide enough for her people in need? Would Americans still give, if their Churches, Temples, or Mosques did not? Would the government be able to step in to pick up where congregations left off?
What is the value of faith in America, and where might she be if that faith simply was not there?
There are an estimated 350,000 congregations in the United States spanning hundreds of religions, each with their own unique belief systems, their own traditions, and their own priorities.
Congress is in a unique position to ensure that federal policy does not hinder facilitating this assistance to Americans. By doing so, Congress can be part of a system that will help people to lift themselves out of poverty, ensure quality access to health and medical care, and provide aid in times of hardship. Congressional assistance is not provided through major spending programs, but through interaction of individual Members with their communities to identify where specific relief and legislative policy changes may be needed, and by encouraging and enabling communities to help their fellow man in ways the federal government cannot. House Speaker Paul Ryan has made it a priority to address poverty in America, encouraging members and presidential candidates to formulate real solutions that could help up to 45 million Americans.
The House Republican Study Committee’s Empowerment Initiative aims to address issues pertaining to hunger, housing, and poverty plaguing American families. The member-driven task force is focused on combating poverty and reforming the welfare system to promote opportunity and empower individuals, families, and communities. In April 2016, the RSC Empowerment Initiative released a comprehensive anti-poverty agenda that included reforms to promote work, eliminate marriage penalties, and emphasize opportunity and upward mobility in education programs.
The RSC recognizes that the welfare programs created by the federal government decades ago have done little to actually address the root causes of poverty and the lack of upward mobility. The current welfare system entices people to become dependent on government and behave in ways that keep them there. Instead of fostering the conditions that allow individuals to escape poverty, these programs focus on temporarily alleviating its material symptoms. While some defend this failed and outdated system, many believe that throwing money at a problem without actually fixing it is not an act of compassion. Compassion means helping individuals escape from poverty and climb the ladder of opportunity. That requires pursuing the reforms we know will work. Engaging with civil society and organizations on ways people can, and do, help their fellow man is an integral part of this effort.
Members of the RSC have put forward a number of policy proposals to reduce poverty in ways that could involve faith-based organizations. For example, new ideas such as Social Impact Bonds would promote public-private partnerships where non-governmental service providers would be reimbursed by government only for successful anti-poverty outcomes.
Of course, no amount of government intervention can replace the greatest drivers of American life: our families, friends, neighbors, religious institutions, and charities. These institutions, which operate between the isolated individual and government, make up our communities and enable people to thrive and grow. Rather than burdening civil society by hamstringing faith-based non-profits, we must empower it.
Further, Members of the RSC have introduced legislation, including the First Amendment Defense Act, which recognizes the unique status churches and faith-based organizations hold in their communities. This bill would ensure that these groups retain their tax status and would prevent discrimination of our religious institutions and faith-based organizations because of their sincerely held religious beliefs, so that they can continue to serve their communities through religious and social services.
Policy organizations and think tanks have also recognized that faith-based organizations have lessons to teach legislators about how to address poverty and work.
It is no secret that federal spending in Washington is out of control. Helping people should not be hamstrung by the inability of Congress to balance a budget and reduce our deficit. People at home and abroad are in need of assistance and compassion, and they are in need now. With over 80 federal programs already in place geared at providing federal welfare benefits to those in poverty at a cost of roughly $1 trillion per year, the government is overspending, but underperforming, and Americans continue to suffer.
This project, America Without Faith, aims to shine a spotlight on this essential knowledge base for Members of Congress and the American public. Faith-based organizations are already the groups running some of our most successful homeless shelters, soup kitchens, disaster relief missions, and orphanages at home and abroad. Upon a candid review, we might find that helping to break the cycle of poverty is a task better handled by these private religious organizations, rather than by government leviathan bogged down by failed solutions.