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Almost a year ago, Colin Powell, George Bush and the Clintons starred in the much-hyped Presidents' Summit in Philadelphia, supposedly promoting anti-poverty voluntarism. The folly of a top-down approach to engendering bottom-up programs was evident then and is even clearer now. “All hat, no cattle,” as the old Texas expression goes: lots of talk, then few results, except an increase in cynicism.

The ineffectiveness of that approach, however, should not keep us from noticing a few positive anti-poverty developments.

Here in Austin, the Christian group CRISES is achieving results by emphasizing labor, integrity, faith and thrift. Across the country, some changes are occurring and some pioneers, like Robert Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, continue to instruct all of us about the capacities for leadership that exist in many inner cities.

Ever since a book I wrote, “The Tragedy of American Compassion,” received some publicity three years ago, some well-intentioned people have talked about “the Olasky model” for fighting poverty. I cringe when I hear that, because Robert Woodson was putting into practice in 1980 what I came to understand only 10 years later while wandering through historical data in the Library of Congress.

Mr. Woodson has now summarized his insights and experience in a new book, “The Triumphs of Joseph” (Free Press). He emphasizes the work of grass-roots leaders who understand that God, not Government, delivers people from imprisonment. He highlights contemporary Josephs who grew in their faith while struggling out of poverty, addiction or prison. He asks today's Pharoahs - leaders in both government and business - to turn aside from their advisers and magicians and forge alliances with these Josephs.

As an unconventional leader within the black community, Robert Woodson is well-placed to criticize bureaucrats of his own race: “As many as six out of 10 blacks with college educations hold government jobs the majority with the social service industry or with the education system. Because the careers of these service providers are ensured by a client base of the poor who are dependent on them, the self-sufficiency of low-income blacks poses a threat to their guardians in the poverty industry.”

Mr. Woodson also takes on the Vernon Jordans of the world and contrasts them with many local Josephs transformed into true servant-leaders by God's grace: “people who had been in prison, who had infected their own sons with drugs, who had been prostitutes, people who all the experts said you can't do anything with, and I saw them transformed.” I've had similar conversations, and it's God's grace working among some of those folks at the bottom and at the top that makes me hopeful.

It's important to be patient; changes of thought take time, and initial rejection should not leave us dejected. The apostle Paul's speech to Athenian leaders in Acts 17 proceeded swimmingly until he talked about the resurrection of the dead. That's when the meeting broke up, with some sneering. Others asked for more information, however, and a few eventually converted to Christ.

At a much lower level of significance, I had a similar oratorical experience early in 1995 when I spoke to several dozen conservative congressmen interested in the front-burner issue of that year, welfare reform. I noted the historical evidence concerning poverty-fighting by church-based groups and argued that a biblical strategy would produce positive results today.

The congressmen all seemed to be with me until I suggested that they take the lead by becoming deeply involved with church- or community- based groups.

Those who spoke up sneered: “We don't have the time, ” they said.

I had lost them, and I soon lost touch with many of them. That's why it was gratifying to read April Lassiter's Congress and Civil Society, a recent Heritage Foundation report on Washington legislators who have broken from the pork-barrel tradition of constituent service. Instead of pushing to get more government dollars passed out, they have embraced an approach that puts faith-based and other neighborhood programs first.

Ms. Lassiter cites senators such as Kansas' Sam Brownback, who has spent time learning about the successful efforts of groups like the Topeka Rescue Mission, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Wichita and the Good Samaritan Clinic. She describes the work of representatives like Pennsylvania's Joe Pitts, who has identified 200 anti-poverty groups in his district and found ways to teach them about marketing and fund- raising.

Some of these steps are small, but together they are worth more than summit sizzle. This is a hard spring ethically for the United States of America, but across the country, God is still at work, searing hearts.

Olasky is a journalism professor at the University of Texas.

Copyright © 1998, The Austin American-Statesman
Marvin Olasky, A better approach to fighting poverty., 04-15-1998.