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Conservative compassion

My Sophomore year, I had spent my Christmas break applying for internships in Washington D.C.. As I explained to my parents, “that is where the important work happens and that is how people gain opportunities to effect real change.” My first interview came and I thought I was prepared to dazzle them with the usual Hillsdale College repertoire. It proved to be quite the contrary, and though other interviews left me less like a scolded pup, I am grateful for that moment of humility. It was that first interview that confronted my pride, and consequently led me to consider my motives for interning in D.C. After much deliberation, I decided I would move back home for the summer and work for two small non-profits in Houston: the Free Enterprise Institute and the Center for Cultural Renewal.

When I arrived at the office the first day, I was given an assignment to write a constitutional principles curriculum for an inner-city youth program, and soon I discovered that I would also be teaching the class. I had lived in Houston all my life, and yet I had managed to avoid ever crossing into the Third Ward. Before I knew it, there I was, standing in front of a class of thirty middle school students, shooting up a prayer as I attempted to get their attention. These kids came up with so many alternative classroom activities: making faces at their neighbor, texting during class, walking around the classroom, snacking, provoking other students. The only thing they didn’t know how to do was sit still. Finally, I began lesson one: “Today,” I said, “We are going to take a journey back in History.” It was soon evident that these students couldn’t see the connection from the western tradition to the American founding because they didn’t know anything outside their neighborhood, much less across the globe. I soon realized that I was going to have to slow down, and that I needed to give all of my energy to these students.

As the six-week period approached an end, I gave the students an opportunity to participate in a mock trial. I coached them in the preparation process, and taught them how to make constitutional arguments on subjects like Second Amendment rights and school prayer. I also promised them that if they did a stellar job I would do a constitutional rap for them. When the day came to debate their issue, the same kids who had appeared as sporadic as a firework finale now completed the task with passionate, well-reasoned, articulate responses. They were beginning to see how they could channel their pent-up energy to look beyond themselves and to fight for a just cause. At the closing of class, I did my rap for the kids, and they were laughing so hard as “that white girl” tried to speak in their lingo. They all gave me hugs multiple times and asked when I would come back.

The privilege and task of teaching these thirty students unveiled some of the root problems in inner cities, while also suggesting an approach to renewal. Some of the students might have gone to public schools that could pass for penitentiaries, and they might have lived in one-bedroom apartments, but the root of their poverty was a spiritual void. Their fathers were absent, their brothers were off doing drugs, and their mothers worked two jobs. They wanted to be loved, to know that someone believed that they could make it through high school, and maybe college. Even in a six-week program, they began to hold themselves to a higher standard. It was through relationships that they learned to hope, and to glimpse a divine love that never “checks-out” for a couple months, or years.

That summer I learned that solving poverty is not a matter of government programs or free market fixes. Ultimately, people will only escape the cycle of poverty if their soul is restored, and this occurs through relationships and spiritual renewal. Once this transformation occurs, they are prepared to gain the skills they need to support themselves and to become productive citizens.


Poverty has become a muddled term, often buried in political jargon and sentimental language. President Lyndon B. Johnson defined poverty as an “impoverishment of opportunity,” meaning that the poor are at an unfair disadvantage in overcoming their circumstances.[1] This definition suggests that the government can provide a remedy to missed opportunities. Yet, after half a century, LBJ’s “Great Society” failed to eliminate poverty because government is an insufficient institution to address the root of poverty. Poverty is not simply a physical state of emptiness; it also includes a spiritual void. Mother Teresa defines people in poverty as: “The hungry and the lonely, not only for food but for the Word of God; the thirsty and the ignorant, not only for water but also for knowledge, peace, truth, justice and love; the naked and the unloved, not only for clothes but also for human dignity.” Poverty reaches deeper than a person’s raggedy shirt or cardboard shelter; it seeps into a person’s soul, filling it with hopelessness until it begins to lose all form. People who live in true poverty have lost the ability to become fully who they were created to be: they have become so plagued by material and spiritual destitution that they can neither dwell upon the highest things nor use their gifts to serve others.[2] Thus, it is outside the scope of the government to address matters of the heart; instead, it is the role of the church, family, and community to renew individuals, and it is through relationships that their dignity and purpose will be restored.

The Great Society: A Noble Failure

In 1964, for the first time in American history, a president promised to eliminate poverty. Though until this point, poverty had been a reality in every civilization, now President Johnson declared a “War on Poverty,” an effort to combat the inequality within this supposed land of opportunity. His new vision for America is outlined in his famous “Great Society Speech” delivered at the University of Michigan’s Commencement in 1964. He defined the “Great Society” as “A place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community…. But most of all, the “Great Society” is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.”[3] Johnson believed that Americans had entered in a new era, and in this era, he would “pursue the happiness of our people” through liberating Americans from racism and poverty. With the vision of a better future, Johnson set out to beautify the cities and countryside. Just as he groomed the gardens of desolate parks, he sought to cultivate harmony amongst families and communities. It was his hope in American progress that inspired him to create a new ideal, and it was his plan to eliminate poverty that led to an entirely new community structure.

To win the “War on Poverty,” Johnson proposed the “Economic Opportunity Act of 1964,” which created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). In LBJ’s United States, “any problem could be solved,” and he believed that the solution to poverty was to decrease the doles and increase government initiatives that gave people the skills they needed to overcome poverty.[4] The OEO established many programs that attempted to combat poverty, some of which included: Head Start day care programs; the Food Stamp Act of 1964; the Neighborhood Youth Corps; and the Community Action Program. Intending not simply to increase the salaries of the poor, but to better their education, skills, and community development, Johnson allocated $3 billion to the OEO in the first three years.[5] The various initiatives funneled millions of dollars into cities to improve education, job skills, and living standards. Each program took more and more control away from the “little platoons” and replaced them with federal agents. Initially, President Johnson wanted to “substitute for free enterprise equal opportunity,” and this opportunity would provide people with education, skills, and jobs that would better their families and help them overcome poverty.[6] In his pursuit for equality, he assumed that the government could and should ensure fairness. Though he rejected simply giving people welfare, he poured billions of dollars into government programs that would equalize opportunity. He wanted people to become educated and to help themselves, but he wanted the government—rather than the community—to provide the opportunities for self-improvement.Though initially the public responded enthusiastically to President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” soon they soon became disillusioned. As he began to implement his programs in 1965, the first few months ran as smoothly as a clock’s hand, cranking out legislation that bolstered the OEO and preparing officials to integrate new policies into society. In the midst of sending 50,000 more troops to Vietnam, he told his cabinet to save money and “you-all give it to [the deputy director of OEO].”[7] Yet, it was because of his near obsession with the “War on Poverty” that both his own reputation and the state of the economy began to spiral downward.[8] As more and more power was concentrated in the Federal office, local communities began to distrust President Johnson’s plan. Mayors and other town officials grew uncomfortable with federal programs controlling their communities, and many worried that these initiatives would motivate people to vote a particular way. Once objections arose, Johnson had to devote much energy to reacting to dissenters, rather than simply plowing his agenda over the American landscape.

As the administrators began to carry the programs into cities and towns across America, problems quickly arose. In Oakland, for example, the federal government had allocated $23 billion for Community Action Programs, and after four years, the Los Angeles Times regretted reporting that the initiative had only created 20 jobs of the 2,200 it had promised; furthermore, the conflict within the bureaucracy had gridlocked any potential progress.[9] Even the community action training programs, which were intended to teach adults the skills they needed to find better employment, proved equally ineffective as only 1.5% of people in the program benefitted from salary increases. In the fall of 1965, the White House planning conference convened to discuss the “Great Society” policies, and delegates argued that government programs were actually stifling the poor. Many even went as far as declaring that “liberal values were an impediment to social and racial justice.”[10] Despite the fact that his own White House advisors unveiled the ineffective and even damaging results, President Johnson poured more money into the training program, and others like it. President Johnson’s stubbornness kept him from tempering his agenda, yet his determination only made it more evident that the reality of poverty could not be erased by his “Great Society” ideals.

The “War on Poverty” failed because the system itself was flawed. Though he wanted people to overcome welfare, his solution ultimately fostered more and more dependence on the government. It attempted to solve poverty from a centralized approach, and could not replicate what made local communities so unique: the relational element. Johnson could not be a neighbor to everyone; instead, in the process of constructing elaborate structures to abolish poverty, many neighbors became strangers, leaving the poor more destitute and dependent on the government. It was not the poor who had changed, it was the “rules of their world.”[11] The new rules made it “profitable for the poor to behave in the short term in ways that were destructive in the long term. Their second effect was to mask these long-term losses—to subsidize irretrievable mistakes.”[12] These new rules caught the nation off guard, considering that in 1962 poverty had nearly no place in the public square and by the fall of 1963 it suddenly became the primary topic of the election. Over the next four years, he attempted to remedy the problem of poverty, following social scientists’ understanding that poverty is “produced by conditions that had nothing to do with individual virtue or effort.”[13] Because poverty was a social condition that some people were born into, and the only escape was through a new system that would transform the whole social structure. This new ideal society inverted the element of community that had set America apart from the very beginning: It assumed first that people were born in an inescapable cycle of poverty, and second, that the government was the only force that could elevate communities out of that cycle. In reality, rather than remedying broken communities, it continued to fragment them, not only making them more aware of their social position, and consequently more dissatisfied, but also trapping them in poverty as people became so dependent on welfare that they lost all ambition, industriousness, and hope.

The Broken Walls: The Current State of Poverty

As a result of the “Great Society,” government dependence did not decrease; in fact, it increased. After all these efforts, poverty still hovered at the same percentage. In 1960, 13 percent of the population was considered poor, and by 1980, time enough to allow the “Great Society” policies to be carried out, and to have spent four times the amount of money, the percentage still lingered at 13. During Johnson’s five years in office, he spent 66.2 billion dollars on public aid, setting the precedent for the 80 billion that the executive branch would spend the following five years.[14] The statistics reveal that the “Great Society” failed to eliminate poverty, but perhaps more distressing than the sums of money they poured into the programs is the fact that it actually increased, rather than decreased dependency on the government. LBJ’s initial goal was to provide these programs to replace government handouts and create an avenue for citizens to become self-sufficient. To supporters’ chagrin, the opposite occurred, and whereas people dependent on government funding decreased by a third from 1950 to 1965, the percentage crept back up to 22% from 1968 to 1980.[15] In the 1960s, money was not the problem, and it is certainly not the root of poverty now: In 2011, Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation concluded that the typical “poor” American lives in an air-conditioned house, has multiple cable TVs, and many other appliances. Half of them have computers and a third have wide-screen plasmas. 96 percent of poor parents report that their children were never hungry in a year. In fact, it is more likely that a poor child will have cable TV, computer, wide screen TV, X-box, and Tivo than be hungry. When the census bureau reports that 35 million Americans are impoverished, they do not include these living conditions. In total, the U.S. government has already spent $17 trillion on “means-tested” welfare since LBJ’s “War on Poverty,” yet it has failed to reduce the causes of poverty.[16] The cultural expectations have trapped many people in a state of passiveness, and this despair causes the poor to form unhealthy habits, which further destroys their families.

The era of the “Great Society” accompanied a greater cultural breakdown of families, and these combined factors have driven poverty upwards. When LBJ launched the “War on Poverty” 93% of children were born to married parents, whereas now over 50% of children spend part or all of their childhood in single-parent homes.[17] Being raised in a married family reduced a child’s chance of living in poverty by 80 percent. Yet, the traditional role of parents to educate, discipline, and provide for their children grew less essential as administrators took on these roles. As a consequence, many fathers used this as an excuse to escape the reality of parenting. It was now possible for toddlers to attend Head Start pre-school, children to grow up grocery shopping with food stamps, and teenagers to qualify for subsidized housing at the age of 18, after discovering they were pregnant. The young mother, often abandoned by the father, might stay on welfare for a decade rather than getting a job because the second she found employment her welfare would decrease.[18] She has no incentive to leave the system, especially when a job would require additional costs like daycare and transportation. Because so many fathers now abandon their families, they leave mothers faced with the decision to find employment and childcare or to apply for welfare. When children are born into single-parent homes, they are not only more likely to be raised in poverty, but they are also more likely to drop out of high school, become involved with drugs and alcohol, and become sexually active at an earlier age.[19] According to former Clinton advisor William Glaston, “You need only to do three things in this country to avoid poverty—finish high school, marry before having a child, and marry after the age of 20. Only 8% of families who do this are poor; 79% of those who fail to do this are poor.”[20] The family is the vital cell of society, and because it has been threatened, the cycle of poverty has become more endless.

Cultural Renewal: An Issue of the Soul

The “Great Society” did not simply undermine the American character; it threatened the defining characteristics of humanity. It assumed a sort of egotism that asserted itself over the innate order present in nature. It denied the reverence for a divine law, and instead attempted to shape nature through human power.[21] As Richard Weaver warns: “To meddle with small parts of a machine of whose total design and purpose we are ignorant produces evil consequences.”[22] President Johnson’s plan, though well-intentioned, ignored the order inherent in society. It exemplified the paradox that “this continual warring upon nature is not a sign of superiority to her; it is a proof of preoccupation with nature, of a sort of imprisonment by her.”[23] Rather than being free from human limitations, by attempting to construct a new system, it further tied the people to the chaos that results from nature in the absence of the divine. America had become the land of opportunity not because men created something revolutionary, but because they recognized a truth within nature: they understood themselves in relation to their creator. It is individuals’ intrinsic desire to reflect God’s glory that must drive our efforts to address poverty, and this fulfillment truly transform impoverished lives.

Love is manifest in three institutions: the church, the family, and the community. These institutions will renew people from within, touching their hearts, changing their relationships, and giving them a purpose within their place. First, the church is the nucleus of love and restoration. As David Schindler explains, “Christians should seek to live at the heart of the world, from the center of the church,” and that center is one of love—for “being receives its basic order and meaning from love.”[24] For, with Christ’s love, the most wretched person can be transformed into the most beautiful bride. When people discover the gift of grace, it enables them to live in Christ’s freedom, rather than their own insecurities. As Chesterton explains, “the moment we have a fixed heart we have a free hand.”[25] When a person lifts his gaze upwards, he begins to abide by a divine order: he learns to pray, to use his gifts to glorify God, and to love others. The church becomes a tangible way for people to experience God’s love. Churches that follow Christ’s example care for the broken hearted, come alongside the downtrodden, and build friendships with the lonely. Even if inner-city youth attend church, they are less likely to commit crimes, use drugs, skip school, and be involved in other delinquent behaviors.[26] The church restores people’s dignity—it gives them worth as a person created in the Imago Dei, and with this understanding, they begin to know themselves better, and consequently they learn to live more fully. Once this transformation occurs, individuals begin to look beyond themselves to the needs of others.

Second, the family is the vital cell of society.[27] When people understand their own worth, they can also restore relationships with family members, and this reconciliation leads to more stable homes. Though the government structure actually discourages families, increasing taxes and decreasing welfare for married couples, the family remains an essential element of society. The family should be the primary example of charity; in fact, First Timothy 5:3-4 states, “If a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family.” When families follow this command, physical and spiritual poverty is minimized. The family is “a divine institution that stands at the foundation of life of the human person as the prototype of every social order.”[28] Living in a family instills a sense of order within children. When mothers and fathers fulfill their designed roles, children learn how to obey authority, exemplify good behavior, and sacrifice for others. For, it is in the family “that the mutual giving of self on the part of man and woman united in marriage creates an environment of life in which children ‘develop their potentialities, become aware of their dignity and prepare to face their unique and individual destiny.’”[29] Living in a family is the first step to living in community, and the desire for unity within a family is natural and good. The same unity exemplified in a family can be sought in a community, and this “quest for community will not be denied, for it springs from some of the most powerful needs of human nature—needs for a clear sense of purpose, membership, status, and continuity.”[30] Families teach us how to become ourselves, and they prepare us to be productive and good citizens.

Third, community enables people to practice charity and to use their talents to serve others. It provides a context for people to grow in relationships and to learn to love their neighbors. As Aristotle explains it, “The city is the partnership in living well both of households and families for the sake of a complete and self-sufficient life.”[31] Within a community, each person has a telos, or an end, and this end creates an order in society. Some men are happiest being technicians, while others are most fulfilled being musicians, while still others are driven to be statesmen. Each has a place in society, and each contributes to the good of the community, and this leads to the happiest city.[32] In Christian terms, when men have an opportunity to use their God-given gifts to serve their fellow citizens, they fulfill their earthly vocation and reflect God’s glory through their particular gifts. Within communities, individuals form the irreplaceable associations that are so unique to this nation. As Edmund Burke articulated, “The [little platoon] is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”[33] For, in the “little platoons,” people of similar interests come together for a common cause, whether it be an intellectual ambition, religious affiliation, or civic pursuit. These platoons are the lifeblood of civil society because they provide friendship and purpose to individuals. Gertrude Himmlefarb describes civil society as the place where “character is formed, children are civilized and socialized, individuals voluntarily assume their obligations, rights are complemented by duties, self-interest is reconciled with the general interest, and civility mutes the discord of opposing wills. And all of this would be accomplished without resorting to the state, which was itself subverting these natural virtues.”[34] Community shapes individuals’ character and enables them to garden the parks, clean up the streets, and keep their community safe. It provides a way for individuals to be self-sufficient from the government while being bound to their neighbors. It teaches people how to live together and to contribute to the common good.
Relational Approach: One Platoon at a Time

Because these three institutions—the church, family, and community—are the bedrock of the human experience, cultural renewal comes through these means. At the foot of the cross, in the arms of a mother, at the burial site with a neighbor, people learn to love. When people experience human love, they also begin to know an eternal love, which softens the most rigid hearts, and brings hope to all who receive it. Thus, it is through a relational approach that Americans will be most effective in truly transforming demoralized communities. Though there are countless examples of this model, three examples will serve as case studies for it’s effectiveness: the WorkFaith Connection; the Midtown Education Foundation; and the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

The WorkFaith Connection exemplifies the way in which an organization restores peoples’ dignity. The WorkFaith Connection is a non-profit organization founded by Barbara Elliott in 2006. It exists to “help people build a new life through work and faith.”[35] It provides job training to any individual who accepts that Christ is the source of renewal. Designed as an eight-day intensive program, students learn to first to see themselves as worthy of a vocation and second to present themselves accordingly. Since its’ founding in 2006, it has graduated over 1560 adults from the program, and nearly 80 percent of their graduates obtain employment. They have references to over 1000 employers, many of whom now give preference to WorkFaith graduates because they are willing to work hard. World Magazine recently highlighted the WorkFaith Connection, praising the organization for its dedication to helping individuals—60 percent of whom were felons—reinter the workforce.[36] President Sandy Schultz explains that the difference is in the attitude: “They shift from an attitude of entitlement—’What can you do for me?’—to one of gratitude: ‘What can I do for you?'”[37] The WorkFaith staff does more than help these individuals prepare for a job, it invests in their lives and helps build community within each graduating class.

By the Friday of graduation, it is evident that each person has truly been touched by the program: one by one, they walk in with posters describing the ways they perceived themselves two weeks ago, then they flip the posters, and describe the difference in their attitude now. Many of them reflected the following: before: hopeless, insecure, angry, lonely, not important, messed-up; after: joyful, happy, hopeful, peaceful, and loved. This exercise may seem elementary, but it is significant to the graduates, especially to people who rarely expressed emotions. The graduates have a chance to talk about the program. It is a humbling and powerful experience to watch a tattooed, gruff man walk up to the podium and declare that after three prison sentence, and 25 years away from the job market, he knows God has made him a new creation and will provide for him. In the audience, family members, volunteers, and donors alike celebrate this victory. A year later, Asa-Mari Thompson, expressed her gratitude for the program, for helping her stay away from her previous addiction, get off welfare, maintain a job for over a year, and return to school to complete her undergraduate education. But most of all, for showing her that she is a worthy daughter of God—it taught her how to love her family and how to walk into an interview with the confidence to explain her past and know that she’s not going back to that life. Because the staff and the donors invest time, money, and care into people like Asa-Marie, they rescue thousands of lives from debilitating despair.

The Midtown Education Foundation, founded in 1985, has a facility for young men and women’s character education. It houses the girls’ program in the Metro Achievement Center, a building that blends into a well-kept business and residential district in Chicago. From the outside, it looks more like a college than a non-profit mentor center. Inside, the facilities continue to reflect an air of professionalism, but also of youthfulness. The upstairs classrooms are lined with windows, and each room is painted a fresh color. Near the doorway of each room hangs a portrait of a different cultural Madonna and child. Downstairs, girls can take cooking classes and exercise and dance classes. On the middle floor, a music and theater room is off on one side, and then two large wooden doors remain shut. When someone ventures inside, he discovers a gem of a chapel: small and modern, but beautiful and a quiet haven. Though Metro is run by Opus Dei, a lay association of the Catholic Church, none of their curriculum is explicitly Christian. The two teachings they emphasize are universal to nearly all backgrounds: the dignity of the human person, and the role of the parents in raising their children. They do, however, offer optional religious lectures and services. This allows them to reach out to children of all faith-backgrounds, without compromising the centrality of Christ. The program is designed for middle school and high school girls, and it is comprised of a summer program, offering service projects, field trips, and educational classes, and an after school program, offering art, dance, cooking, and exercise classes, and tutoring. The main component of both programs, however, is mentorship: each girl is paired with a volunteer who meets with the weekly and focuses on character development and building trust through friendship. The other essential element to the program’s success is parent involvement, as they provide classes for parents, mother-daughter teas, and other programs that encourage parents to realize their irreplaceable role in raising their daughters. They have dubbed their program a “person-centered” approach, changing the lives of individuals through one-on-one attention and character formation. Their focus on the individual brings lasting transformation.

Their relational approach has touched the lives of so many students that now the program has become nationally recognized. Almost 98 percent of students who participate in the Metro (girls) or Midtown (boys) program graduate from high school, as opposed to only 44 percent of their peer group.[38] Furthermore, 89 percent of respondents continue their education in trade school or college, compared to 20 percent from their national peer group. The organization keeps its budget to a minimum, employing one person to every 24 volunteers: In the fiscal year of 2010, 84 percent of their revenues, including the value of volunteer hours, were program-directed. MEF directs all its funds to serving the student directly, and many organizations have praised their success: The Guide to Effective Compassion has listed it as one of “the nation’s most compassionate and effective human service initiatives;”[39] Philanthropy Magazine has named it “one of sixteen cutting-edge programs… doing exceptionally effective work” in the US; And, the Chicago Bar Association dubbed it the “most exemplary youth mentoring program in Chicago.” MEF reaches over 1000 students a year, and has opened opportunities to thousands of inner-city Chicago residents. But the reason it remains so effective is not simply because it has competent tutors and well-managed funds, but because the mission has stayed the same—to bring purpose to students’ vocation, to come alongside parents and encourage them to be the primary influence, and to show them love through mentor relationships.

In 1981, Bob Woodson pioneered a revolutionary approach to addressing juvenile violence in inner cities.[40] Rather than relying on the social scientists to devise a systematic, organizational solution, Woodson garnered support from members of the community itself, creating an organic way to counter violence. He called these areas of focus Violence Free Zones (VFZ), or areas in which people within the community led students to make productive choices, rather than pressuring them to join gangs. He recruited previous gang leaders to reach out to students leading violent actions. He discovered that at a given high school, 10 percent of the students caused almost all of the violence, and within that 10 percent, it was 10 percent that instigated nearly all the violence. If someone could reach out to that one percent, he would quell most conflicts. Woodson firmly believed that the most effective people to do the job were people within the community, he called them youth advisors. These frontliners partnered with schools, while also remaining partly autonomous. They lived in the same zip code, walked the streets 1000 feet outside the school before school started, picking up potential conflicts, but also chatting with people and encouraging them to go to school. They greeted students entering school, and worked with security so as to make themselves a visible resource for students who might be in dangerous situations. They participated in tardy hall, and got to know students who were repetitively late. They walked the halls between classes, and chatted with everyone from teachers to students to safety officials. They also built relationships with students during lunch and attended meetings to resolve conflicts. Finally, they reached out to leaders of all sorts, from gang members to academic achievers to athletes, preventing the programs from being categorized as a delinquent program.[41] These youth advisors quickly became more effective than social workers because students could relate to them, and wanted to build friendships. they made themselves available all hours of the day, and they were motivated by the needs of the students. It was not long before the VFZ model began to see dramatic drops in school violence.

Woodson planted Violence Free Zones in numerous cities, and each proved successful because he maintained a grassroots approach. While he constructed the model and identified cities in need, he then sought out existing community organizations to implement the program in schools, making use of existing groups and recognizing that they knew their community better than any outsider. In Milwaukee, for example, he actually partnered with two local faith-based organizations, recognizing that the Latio Community Center would be most effective in one sector of the city, while the Running Rebels Community Organization had more credibility in the opposite sector. Two years after VFZ were implemented in over ten Milwaukee high schools, violent incidents at VFZ high schools dropped by 11 percent, as opposed to rising by 15 to 19 percent at other Milwaukee Public Schools. Suspension rates in all Milwaukee Public Schools decreased, but whereas non-participating schools dropped by 9 percent, VFZ dropped by 30 percent. Survey results also revealed that students in VFZ schools are much more likely to consider their schools safe and orderly. The Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent William Andrekopoulos praised the results, commenting: “I’m not even going to say it’s a program, it’s really a cultural shift, an emphasis on bringing the community into our schools and embracing our children…. In fact, talking with the principals, they have told me they don’t know how they could be a principal without the program in the schools…. It’s actually changing lives of children.”[42] Milwaukee is only one of five cities where VFZ have proven to make lasting change in the community, and in each case, despite challenges, this model continues to renew cities through directly influencing the people who are actually causing the violence.

In each of these case studies, several similarities drive their success. First, the organizations depend almost entirely on private funding, allowing them to include a faith element and stay true to their mission. Second, they equipped people within the community, who had witnessed the hope of a new beginning, to come alongside people who choose to change. Third, they keep staff to a minimum so they can focus their energies on serving people as directly as possible. Fourth, they reaffirm the dignity of the human person and enable people to break out of the cycle of strife. Finally, they devote the majority of their time to building relationships and transforming people through investing in their lives.


As America grows simultaneously individualistic and collectivist, materialistic and environmentalist, and relativist and amoral, one hope remains—a hope for cultural revival. This revival would transpire through the Sunday pews, winter hearthstones, and local block parties. The communities of America can rekindle the American tradition through understanding their rights and responsibilities, and showing compassion to those in need. Once a community regains an American identity—one of liberty tied to responsibility, adventure linked with virtue, and revolution derived from tradition—it will not only serve the poor and help them overcome difficult circumstances, but it will also flourish as a center for piety, familial affections, and voluntary associations.

Appendix A: Civil Society as the Lifeblood of America

A vibrant civil society enabled men to envision and establish a limited constitutional government. In fact, when George Washington stated, “Religion and morality are necessary conditions of the preservation of free government,” he was not making a radical claim, but reflecting the colonial tradition that had bound the colonist together since the beginning.[43] In the early colonies, the communities believed that as they reflected the body of Christ, they had a duty to use their talents and blessings to serve others. John Winthrop, for example, wanted the new colonists to remember, “that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.”[44] This sermon fulfilled Winthrop’s intention: it became a model for serving the poor in many of the newly founded colonies. Communities not only believed it was their duty to bound together to serve the poor, but also recognized the danger of government intervention. As early as 1620, when the Pilgrims settled Plymouth, too much government control proved stifling to individual responsibility. Though the governing body first required an equal distribution of property and goods, they soon reformed their system to allow individuals to expand, provide for their families, and reap the rewards of their efforts.[45] It was through experience, not simply through principles of governing, that early colonists supported limited government paired with an active civil society.[46]

The early republic continued to cultivate religion and morality, and until the mid 19th century, local communities cared for the poor through voluntary associations and churches. Civil society teemed with energy, and Tocqueville observed that this element of American culture set them apart from all European nations:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations… [They] make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.[47]

Associations and churches gave to people they knew were suffering from illness, old age, or particularly difficult circumstances, but they supported the in ways that allowed capable people to help themselves, ensuring that their generosity was not fostering laziness or intemperate habits. Because most of the time the benefactors had relationships with the impoverished, they could determine individuals and families’ needs and restore their dignity through giving temporary assistance that would allow them to provide for themselves. On the other hand, if people indulged in alcohol or chose not to pursue work, most communities believed that until they changed their lifestyle, they did not deserve the fruits of another person’s labor. In his research on charity in the early republic, Marvin Olasky concluded that most forms of charity gave time, not money, and emphasized cheerful giving and hospitality.[48] The primary emphasis was not simply to meet material needs, but to form relationships, and to bring others hope by guiding people to know God. In New York, for example, The Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP) formed in the 1840s, and it ensured that donations were going to deserving hands through the Chalmers plan.[49] This plan divided the city into districts and garnered the support of the wealthy, who supplied materials for domestic labor, encouraged church involvement, and provided references for employment. Their effectiveness lay in the fact that they selected recipients whom they could aid “physically and morally elevate, and no others,” excluding intemperate and destructive individuals.[50] The most important element of the organization was the home visits, which built relationships between the donor and the recipient, and taught them skills in saving money, hard work, temperance, and religious devotion. This organization represents the model that continued to allow civil society to flourish despite political and economic changes.

Appendix B: The Shift in American Charity

In the 1850s government programs began supporting impoverished people in cities, and while the church and community were still the bedrock of society, the mentality began to shift from one of charity to one of entitlement. This inkling of government welfare in the mid 19th century quickly swelled as Progressive policies gained national attention.[51] Progressivism by its very nature denied the church and local communities the primary role of supporting the poor because they held a divergent view of human nature. Until this point, most people accepted Winthrop’s assertion that men are by nature depraved. Though they are created in the Imago Dei, they all inherit a nature wounded by sin. Men can only overcome this blemish through the grace of God, which frees them from sin and enables them to become saints: men and women who pursue Christ and draw others to His love. Since over 90 percent of Americans practiced Christianity, Christ’s redemptory act inspired many to offer up their talents to those who were suffering or who had sought forgiveness. The Progressives, on the other hand, believed that men were perfectible, and rather than finding redemption in an eternal being, they believed that men could reach perfection through social engineering and political administration. Because of this fundamental difference, the Progressive shift transformed the way many approached civil society, dismounting the human obligation to help those in need and instead placing that responsibility on the government. (possibly move man is perfectible part, but maybe not)

Government programs began to reflect the Progressives’ idea of the perfectibility of man. Whereas most presidents had believed that the Constitution enumerated each branch’s limited powers, Woodrow Wilson understood the Constitution to be a “living, breathing organism,” evolving as society progresses towards the future. Franklin D. Roosevelt applied Wilson’s evolving understanding of the Constitution to his New Deal policies. This justified implementing relief programs for the unemployed and the poor, such as the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the National Employment System Act. All of these policies taxed the wealthy more heavily in order to fund programs for the poor. This was the first major government intervention on behalf of the poor, and though nearly all scholars agree that it prolonged the depression, many of these programs continue to be a crutch for low-income families.[52] FDR even went as far as making an Economic Bill of Rights, which included a right to a “decent home,” “remunerative job,” and the “protections from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.”[53] In providing jobs, income support, and new rights to the people, President Roosevelt began to uproot citizens’ understanding of their role as Christians, neighbors, and members of a community: Instead of seeing their role as the essential and primary source of charity for the poor, they began to perceive it as unnecessary since the government used tax dollars to create its own solutions to poverty.

The increasing government involvement culminated in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” as he formed an initiative to eliminate poverty. President Johnson envisioned America as “a place where leisure is a welcomed chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.”[54] His language conjures images of a peaceful America, in which each person is free from suffering and corruption. Not only is his vision utopian, once again ignoring man’s fallen nature; it also sets forth government agencies as the promoters of cultural rejuvenation, rather than relying on civil society to renew culture from within. Johnson assumes that a system will solve the deprivation latent in the underprivileged culture, that government programs will reform habits, and that welfare will elevate society. It hands over the role of the people to the role of a government mechanism for the sake of progress.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


BibliographyAristotle, The Politics. Edited by Carnes Lord. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984.
Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the French Revolution. New York: P.F. Collier & Son. Volume 23, Part 3.
Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. New York: The Modern Library, 1981.
Chesterton, G.K.. Orthodoxy. New York: Doubleday, 1959.
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Washington, D.C.: US Conference of Bishops, 2004.
Davies, Gareth. From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great
Society Liberalism. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.
De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Charolettsville: University of Virginia, 1997.
Eberly, Don. The Essential Civil Society Reader. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.
Elliott, Barbara J. and John L. Stanley. “Upstream Philanthropy: Marriage and Family Formation.” The Legacy Group, 2011.
Funiciello, Theresa. Tyranny of Kindness. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993.
Johnson, Byron More God, Less Crime. Pennsylvania: Templeton Press, 2011.
Johnson, Lyndon B.. “The Great Society Speech.” Public Papers of the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, Book 1, 1963-1964.
Himmlefarb, Gertrude. “Civil Society Reconsidered.” The Weekly Standard, April 23, 2012.
Murray, Charles. Losing Ground. New York: Basic Books, 1984.
Olasky, Marvin. “Punching paper walls.” World Magazine, Nov 19, 2011.
Olasky, Marvin The Tragedy of American Compassion. Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1996.
Rector, Robert and Rachel Sheffield. “Understanding Poverty in the United States.” The
Heritage Foundation. September 13, 2011.
Roosevelt, Franklin D.. “Message to Congress of the United States.” January 11, 1944.
Schindler, David L.. Heart of the World, Center of the Church. Grand Rapids: William B.
Eerdmans, 1996.
Washington, George. Farewell Address. University of Virginia: The Papers of George
Weaver, Richard. Ideas Have Consequences. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1948.
Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity.” Boston: Collections of the Massachusetts
Historical Society, 1838.
1. Lyndon B. Johnson quoted in Gareth Davies’ From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996), 39.
2. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses how contemplation is the highest life, and Thomas Aquinas applies this to the Christian life as all people are called to know God more intimately and part of this process of knowing Him is spent contemplating the things He created and the things we know about Him. The mention of “gifts” references the talents and gifts that God bestows upon each person so that they can reflect His glory to their corner of the world.
3. Lyndon B. Johnson, “The Great Society Speech” (Public Papers of the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, Book 1, 1963-1964), 704-707.
4. Lyndon B. Johnson quoted in Davies’ From Opportunity to Entitlement, 38.
5. LBJ wanted the citizens involved in this process, so he encouraged “community action,” which, at least in theory, allowed the poor to participate in designing and administering the programs.
6. Lyndon B. Johnson quote in Davies, From Opportunity to Entitlement, 33.
7. Ibid., 77.
8. Ibid., 95.
9. Charles Murray, Losing Ground (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 37.
10. Davies, From Opportunity to Entitlement, 96.
11. Murray, Losing Ground, 9.
12. Ibid., 9.
13. Ibid., 29.
14. Ibid., 49.
15. Ibid., 49-66.
16. Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, “Understanding Poverty in the United States,” Heritage Backgrounder, September 13, 2011, 1-7.
17. Ibid., 6. The “Great Society” was only one factor of many that led to the dissolution of the family, but it exemplifies the philosophic changes that underline the post-modern cultural changes.
18. This example is based off of the testimony of Theresa Funiciello, in her book, Tyrany of Kindness (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993), 13.
19. Barbara J. Elliott and John L. Stanley, “Upstream Philanthropy: Marriage and Family Formation,” The Legacy Group, 2011, 9.
20. Quoted in Elliott, “Upstream Philanthropy,” 6.
21. This stemmed from German philosophers like Nietzsche who affected the academics like Woodrow Wilson, Richard Rorty, Robert Croly, and many others. The “Great Society” was one political manifestation of the philosophic, religious, and cultural changes that transpired in the United States. It was not the only cause for a weakening of community, but it was a product of German philosophy, and it did point the nation towards a more centralized trajectory.
22. Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1948), 172.
23. Ibid., 173.
24. David L. Schindler, Heart of the World, Center of the Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1996), 1, xi.
25. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 70.
26. Byron Johnson, More God, Less Crime (Pennsylvania: Templeton Press, 2011), 175.
27. This term is taken from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Washington, D.C.: US Conference of Bishops, 2004), 95.
28. Ibid., 96
29. Ibid., 96.
30. Robert Nisbet, ‘“The Quest for Community”: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom’ in Don Eberly’s The Essential Civil Society Reader (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), 48.
31. Aristotle, The Politics, ed. by Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984), 99.
32. For more information on this, reference Aristotle’s The Politics, Book 3.
33. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14), vol. 23, Part 3.
34. Gertrude Himmlefarb, “Civil Society Reconsidered,” The Weekly Standard, April 23, 2012.
36. Marvin Olasky, “Punching paper walls,” World Magazine, Nov 19, 2011.
37. Ibid.
38. Midtown Education Foundation Alumni Survey, prepared by New-Trac.
40. For Background on the rise of juvenile violence, reference Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd (New York: Random House, 1956).
41. Johnson, More God, Less Crime, 58.
43. George Washington, Farewell Address.
44. John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity.”
45. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (New York: The Modern Library, 1981), 83.
46. Civil Society includes all sectors of life not encompassed by the government, including: religious organizations, charities, voluntary associations, rotary clubs, etc. As Tocqueville describes, It is the lifeblood of American character .
47. Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Charolettsville: University of Virginia, 1997), Book II, Chapter V.
48. Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion (Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1996), Chapter One.
49. The Chalmers plan was founded by Thomas Chalmers in 1823. In order to address poverty in Glasgow, he broke a 10,000 person city into 25 districts and raised all the money to support poor people through parishioners’ donations, and a deacon for each district determined whether people who asked for help needed the relief. People soon gave more eagerly because they knew their donations would go to people who needed the help (from Olasky, 25).
50. Quoted in Olasky, 27.
51. Progressivism characterizes a political and social philosophy growing out of Social Darwinism, in which the most fit men become experts and administer the “rights” to the people by creating entitlement programs. It is based on the idea that men are perfectible if they have the right men reforming the social organism, yet it is also based on the idea that most men cannot be trusted to give to the poor or adequately care for their communities. Men like John Dewey, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson first promoted and implemented these ideas in the late 19th and early 20th century. Franklin Roosevelt represented the culmination of the Progressive era.
52. See Burt Folsom’s Book, New Deal or Raw Deal
53. Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Message to Congress of the United States,” January 11, 1944.
54. Lydon B. Johnson, “The Great Society,” Commencement Speech, University of Michigan, 1964.
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6 replies to this post
  1. Fantastic article.

    Back when I was a kid, negroes from the inner city were bused into my school. The level of racial tension and resentment was pronounced, and I remeber being on the recieving end because I was white. But the worst thing about the negro kids was that even though they were patently NOT poor, the system pumped an entitlement mentality into their minds and they believed the world owed them a living. There were a whole bunch of fights and arguments caused by a culture of materialism and the effective constitutional mandate to keep not only religion, but all morality out of the schools. Kids would judge one another not on the basis of their color, but their footwear. If you could afford 200 dollar Reebok pumps or Air Jordans, you were human.

    In contrast, when I came to Poland in 1991, kids in my school were REALLY poor. Inflation was at about 2000%, so everybody's money was equally worthless. Most of these kids were born into a world where you stood in line for 8 hours if you wanted to buy bread.

    However, everybody was Catholic, religion was taught in public schools, and nobody ever bullied anybody or judged anybody for material reasons. Kids were polite, always shared what little they had and there was actually real education in public schools.

    6th graders had physics, biology and chemistry as seperate subjects. Of course, that is no longer the case. Now Poles have adopted western educational standards and there is no more physics for 6th graders. Instead – just like in my public school in the US – 6th graders learn how to read a map if they're not too busy texting. Even religion classes have become a farce, and First Communion prep is mainly about getting a Playstation for your First Communion.

    Materialism is indeed the culprit here, as is the transformation of schools from places of moral and intellectual education into baby sitting programs. Parents who treat their children like designer goods and feel that making sure their kids are popular with the in-crowd is more important than education are also at fault.

    I have no clue how to undo this tendency…

  2. Great article, Brittany. I've got a daughter who is six who I am considering to send to Hillsdale (won't send her to Calvin College, my alma mater). I am curious about the spirituality of Hillsdale though – Would you say a young person can get "lost" there, and fall into things they're not ready for, while falling out of their relationship with the Lord?

    Thank you,
    – Jay Eppinga
    Piqua Ohio

    • Jay, I was asked this question maybe 400 times while I was still teaching at Hillsdale. I remember one particularly concerned father who told me that until the Hillsdale visit his daughter was convinced that only a “Christian” college could help her to grow in grace in the best and most secure ways. “What are the dangers here?” asked the father. I told him that Hillsdale is Christian user-friendly, that there is a very healthy mixture of committed evangelicals, Catholics, mainstream protestants, skeptics, etc.–and that there is also Sodom and Gomorrah if his daughter wanted to seek them out. But the most important thing I could tell him was that it was not the desire of our teachers or our curriculum to “frisk the students of their principles,” as Robert Frost liked to say. Challenge, yes; break down, no. Christians tend to grow here, not diminish.

  3. All your articles are incredible! Thank you for them.

    "As America grows simultaneously individualistic and collectivist, materialistic and environmentalist, and relativist and amoral, one hope remains—a hope for cultural revival."

    In the sentence above you manged to spell out everything that is wrong with our society and also the solution to those maladies – a "cultural revival". I agree with that, and if as a nation we have been through bad before and have come out victorious, there is not reason why victory can't be achieved again – as a nation, and by Americans.

    BTW, my parents are Cuban émigrés, they fled communism there, so everything you write about we are cognizant of. Thank you again – keep on writing, and never give up!

    Mario Ramirez

  4. Hi Jay,
    Thank you. Your daughter is six? Well, I am impressed by your planning ahead. I cannot speak for what it will be like in a decade, but I can tell you that currently, student's devotion to their spiritual lives is evident, and even encouraged, at Hillsdale.

    Professors are not afraid to discuss truth, and to include God in this discussion. Dr. Arnn and the administration often refer to our mission, and the moral virtue that is so integral to intellectual pursuits. We study what it means to live the good life, and this more often than not fosters healthy discussion about our purpose in relation to our Creator.

    We are not technically a religious institution, but if anything this has enabled moral uprightness and a sincere pursuit of faithfulness to flourish both inside and outside the classroom. It is the only place I know where Baptists, Presbyterians,Catholics,and many other denominations (but yes, mostly Christian)not only coexist, but also form real friendships and still challenge each other to deepen their faith.

    If anything, the environment prompts students and faculty alike to examine their faith. I have known several people who have come to Hillsdale without any faith and left as devout believers.

    Hillsdale cultivates students who pursue what is noble, and they cannot truly pursue this unless they are willing to dwell upon the highest things.

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