President Bush is walking a tight rope—-and this time it’s not about foreign policy. Now that the various wars have calmed down a little, his challenge is to “come real” with his much-touted compassionate conservatism.
He was off to a good start in 2001, when he used not one but two executive orders to create the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI) within five cabinet departments. He followed this by pushing HR 7, the “Community Solutions Act of 2001,” as one of his first legislative proposals. These actions powerfully backed up his campaign promises of increased governmental support for charities and indicated his eagerness to get on board with community-building projects.
Since then, post-9/11 Congressional activity has forced many of his initiatives onto the back burner. But as the economy struggles to right itself, he is taking his welfare reform, hunger, and homelessness projects to the streets.
The current administration’s definition of “compassionate conservatism,” an overused and often-misunderstood term, is solidly based on the idea that giving people responsibility and work incentives both dignifies them as humans—-rather than making them into helpless government dependents—-and is more successful at making them productive members of society than the current welfare system.
“It is compassionate to actively help our citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on accountability and results,” declares a White House news release of April 30, 2002.
Bush believes that the federal government should allow state and local governments to make the day-to-day decisions about how to administer welfare, while the federal government itself provides the money and oversees the results. The same reasoning was used in 1996, when the highly controversial Welfare Reform Act was first passed. From that piece of legislation came the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), which is a monetary block grant to states. It stipulates a time limit on each family’s eligibility and requires 40 hours per week of participation (24 of which can be education or job training), but leaves the program’s implementation up to the individual states and gives them other leeway, living up to the idea of conservative government. Since 1996, the national welfare caseload has been halved, making a lot of believers out of the former opponents of welfare reform.
Let us look for a moment at a government-independent agency, Habitat for Humanity, which has built or rebuilt more than 150,000 houses worldwide. Its principles are remarkably similar to the brand of compassionate conservatism Bush espouses. Habitat is an international organization operating at the community level. It requires “sweat equity,” which pushes even the poorest families to invest time and responsibility in the new house being given to them. Personal investment brings a sense of personal responsibility and the dignity of achievement, rather than simply the immediate gratification of a house purchased at a no–profit price and with a no-interest loan.
Bush is using the same ideas to attack homelessness from the federal government. He sees homeownership itself as providing both responsibility and a growing equity base, not to mention getting families off of the streets. His announced goal is 5.5 million new homeowners by the end of his term.
At the end of 2002, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, representing 1,139 major cities, drafted a call to action that besought Congress to act on Bush’s request for aid to the homeless. Among other requests, it urged the administration to create a national affordable housing trust fund, homeownership tax credit, and expanded employer-assisted housing.
These programs seem to be working, and even saving the government money. For instance, in Manhattan federally funded “supportive housing” for the homeless (most of whom are mentally disabled) has cut the public aid cost per person by an estimated $12,000 annually. These housing facilities provide beds, job training, therapy for addiction, and discipline in looking for work. The homeless are being provided with a stable environment and work-incentives for much less than is spent to keep them bouncing between shelters, hospitals, and psychiatric wards.
With federal help channeled through local governments, Bush should be able to achieve his goal of more homeowners. Unfortunately, the housing market sits on a knife’s edge. According to a 2003 Housing study done at Harvard University, if the economy (and thus interest rates) can remain more or less stable, low-income homeowners will gain on a large scale. If rates increase too much, however, significant swaths of urban America may be repossessed, causing a glut in the housing market and reinforcing the economy’s fall. Thus, Bush is playing double-or-nothing —- relying on the performance of the economy to remain stable in order to support his housing projects, but also buttressing any future economic growth with a base of new government-assisted homeowners.
As government programs increasingly subsidize down payments and mortgages and allow an ever-growing number of risky bad-credit loans, the danger becomes more significant. The threat of economic instability is worrisome as more and more states face fiscal struggles (and with them the temptation to siphon off TANF money).
However, the danger is easy to overestimate. Even the economic recess at the height of the Iraq conflict was not sufficient to push homeownership over the edge: it did not cause large numbers of low-income homeowners to give up on their house payments, as many feared it would. Economists suggest that one main reason is “the pre- and post- purchase counseling efforts of community-based organizations,” which “have helped first-time homebuyers stay current on their mortgages.”
These are not government fliers on “How To Keep Paying Your Mortgage When the Economy Goes Bad.” They are person-to-person counseling organizations on the community level, largely run by non-profit groups (such as Habitat).
This relates to a third prong of Bush’s strategy, the one he stressed the most while campaigning in 2000. He wants to break down the barriers that are keeping federal money backlogged in the hands of incompetent national agencies and parse it out to more capable non-profitss –- including faith-based charities. The main arguments against this tactic have been based on the grounds of church-state separation. Yet it seems manifestly better for the money to go to religious charities, which are the most effective community-building tools we have –- perhaps with the stipulation that it be used only for non-proselytizing purposes –- than to go to waste.
So what’s the verdict? Bush is making good on his promises of compassionate conservatism, which is based on solid and independently tested principles. By affirming the dignity of those whom it helps, compassionate conservatism treats circumstances, not people, as problems. It makes demands on those it rehabilitates, allowing them to become contributors to society once again. And it does this on a manageable level -– through state and local governments -– rather than purely from the top down. Whether or not this admittedly risky strategy will work for Bush remains to be seen. But risk is involved in all welfare strategies and this one seems to have the best set of possible outcomes; and so far the economy has not thrown Bush off balance.
William Britt is a sophomore in Morse College.