In Washington right now, the debate over how to address inequality — whether of income or opportunity — rages almost daily, as scholars, policy wonks and politicians often far-removed from these problems wrangle over whose solution is best and whose affirmatively do harm.
And for Robert Woodson these detached academic notions and political food fights are part of the problem.
Woodson, a community development leader, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and product of the civil rights movement, has been challenging the way the U.S. addresses communities in need for more than 30 years, with notable success.
Empowering the marginalized is a challenge that conservatives, at least those with the courage of their convictions, should accept, particularly since Woodson’s approach to increasing opportunity for the poor relies heavily on conservative principles.
Since founding the center in 1981, Woodson has applied a theory of “social entrepreneurship” to tackling the most vexing social issues in cities like Milwaukee and Chicago.
“The principles of the free market economy should be applied in the social economy,” Woodson told me.
His organization goes into inner cities and struggling neighborhoods, finds people and programs indigenous to these communities that are providing effective localized solutions, and helps provide them with the resources, training and management they need to “grow along a continuum.”
He’s a kind of social venture capitalist. Although his nonprofit is always in search of capital.
The pursuit of virtue is an essential element of the battle against societal problems that Woodson believes can only be addressed through individual transformation, a lesson he says is illustrated by Christ’s teachings.
His approach to lifting people out of poverty and violence differs from that typically supported by liberals today, which has a penchant for ever-expanding, top-down government programs that cause “a lot of injury with a helping hand.”
Liberal policies, he told me, can be “equally injurious, indifferent and exploitative,” because they don’t empower the disadvantaged.
But he reserves some criticism for conservatives, who he says have made a “grievance industry” out of talking about what they’re against (“wasteful government programs”) instead of what they’re for when it comes to making a difference for the truly struggling.
“Conservatives,” he said, “think if you just make a logical argument” people will get on board. But such arguments fail to resonate with desperate people.
While Woodson largely seems to believe that conservative concepts make for sound public policy, he sees demonstrating how these beliefs make for a better life as the missing element of contemporary Republican politics.
Conservatives who recognize the wisdom of Woodson’s approach must be resolute, if only because after so many years of preaching his message Woodson remains optimistic.
“We only need one person who gets personally committed [to this cause] to change the party,” he says, and he may have found that person in Rep. Paul Ryan.
For some time now this dynamic duo has been traveling to low-income, violence-plagued communities on a listening tour to identify better ways to help the poor and marginalized of society.
Ryan, as House Budget Committee chairman, is uniquely positioned to use this personal experience — which Woodson believes to be crucial — to advance a conservative anti-poverty agenda.
The fight against income inequality has been named by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats as the issue they will run on in 2014. So voters will be hearing a lot about it this year.
But when voters hear liberals accuse conservatives of being cold-hearted, they shouldn't assume that liberal approaches to lifting up the marginalized are good ones.
Thanks to people like Woodson, conservatives can counter with detailed ideas of their own — which have the added benefit that they work.