Does More Spending Equal More Compassion?

Does More Spending Equal More Compassion? July 7, 2011

After watching Jim Wallis and Richard Land debate the budget on Bloggingheads and reading my colleague Jordan Sekulow’s Washington Post piece on the debt disaster, I realized once again that the religious left and the religious right seem to speak different languages when it comes to budgetary policy.

All too often it seems that the religious left virtually takes for granted that the hundreds of billions of dollars spent fighting poverty and funding education (to take two examples) represent money well spent and that cutting that funding is “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor” or “sacrificing our children’s future.”  Yet does more money equal better outcomes?  Consider the chart below:


And for a graphical look at education expenses, click here.

To translate from chart-speak, both show that hundreds of billions of dollars (if not trillions) in spending have not (1) lowered the poverty rate; or (2) improved educational outcomes.

Regarding poverty, the single-best indicator of family outcome is family status.  Simply put, intact families have a low poverty rate.  Single-parent families have a high poverty rate.  And to the extent government funding impacts family status, it often does so negatively — by making single-parent poverty more sustainable over the long term.

Regarding education, there is also strong evidence that family status is a prime predictor of educational outcome.  And anecdotal evidence from successful charter and private schools indicate that strong teaching can overcome even poor families — and this strong teaching comes from schools that have much lower funding levels (on average) than the public school system.

Our poverty and education problems are cultural, not budgetary, and we simply can’t print enough money to cover the social costs of illegitimacy and divorce.  It is a symbol of our nation’s underlying strength that we’ve been able to prosper for decades while diverting astounding amounts of money into ineffective programs, but we can’t afford such waste any longer.


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  • Erin

    Single parent families consist of a woman and her children. She has to work and pay for daycare and support her children. That is why they are poor, not because they are socially costly. Your article seems to suggest that such a woman is poor as a punishment from on high. I think the Beatitudes might have something to say about that. Frankly, this is not the sort of article I’m used to seeing linked from Patheos, and I’m very disappointed.

  • Timothy Dalrymple

    Erin, David’s point was not at all that a single mother is poor because she is receiving divine punishment. The point was that some of the social programs generally considered “compassionate” have served to increase the rate of single-parent households, and increasing the proportion of single-parent households only perpetuates poverty.

    David will happily tell you – I imagine – that he is a theological and political conservative. Patheos is open for people of all political persuasions, within reason.

  • David French

    Nowhere in the post do I indicate that single mothers are poor because God is punishing them. They’re poor for the reasons you indicate, Erin, and unfortunately massive public aid isn’t lifting them out of poverty; instead it sometimes even enables and perpetuates the increase in illegitimacy. Programs designed for compassionate reasons have exactly the opposite real-world consequence, and we spend untold billions of dollars to no good result.

  • Well i feel that like Jesus said the poor will be with us always he did not make that statement because of woman who have children illegitimate, most of the problem is in cost of food ,rising gasoline, heat,taxes,Phone tax, schools tax you pay in your phone bill also, you’d be surprised how many times you pay the same tax on most of your bills that come in. And of course the economy, no pay hikes but allot of other hikes even two people find it hard to live these days. I can see your point of children born illegitimate but so many Christians are very poor and do not believe in contraception and continue to have these children and get back a large amount of money in their tax return.This to hurts our deficit Sorry but i speak for all the nation and debts not just the illegitimate ones they are not the top of the crop.The big wigs that rule the banks and call the shots are the ones that can find tax right offs and live high on the hog and blame the poor for it all. PS All children should have a mom and dad some are illegitimate and some dads die in wars, some die in accidents or of disease, woman seem to get the end of the stick if they are pregnant and the child has no dad, but there might be some things to consider and of course the dad that is around gets away with just signing a paper relinquishing his rights and gets off ever paying support he gives his rights up as the father, the woman carries his sin and hers and the children who are the innocent ones get the shaft to.Fathers need to be more responsible as well as the moms. Yes we need a fix but not a quick one it did not happen over night it will take time to undo. it starts with your congressman and leaders of this country and we need to form groups of people that will stick together and vote for someone who will be more conscious of these problems and pull us out of the mud. We are trying to stop abortion and talk these woman into keeping their babies and when they do we complain they are robbing the system and should not be welfare, there are men now who stay home and get welfare for the kids and won’t work. there are too many ways to get into the system by pleading insanity and other false ways to gain food stamps and welfare. I saw this when i was in college taking classes. this young man was there and was on welfare and he was telling me he wanted to go to school so bad but the state would not help him unless he was on social services they told him if he had a child ans was in need he would be helped these two young people both split up and she took one child and he took the other and they got apartments and both got food stamps and checks in the mail. He also got his education pain for and she watched the kids because she had parental rights.The is what the government teaches people to do if they need help, just split up and get to go to school free.The devils system.

  • Alex

    Not to get unduly partisan, but what is left unobserved about that chart is surely more important than your paean to two-parent families. Surely, one can see the trends in the poverty rate beginning with the Reagan Administration. Dramatic acceleration during the Reagan/Bush I administrations, dramatic decline during the Clinton era, and resuscitation during the Bush II Administration. Plain as the eye can see. Surely, the dramatically disparate levels in social spending between the Reagan and Bush Administrations, on the one hand, and the Clinton Administration, on the other, might mean something. At the very least, the correlation creates the rebuttable presumption that a certain level of governmental welfare spend is requisite for avoiding systemic poverty. I’d even go so far as to argue that this is the Christian mandate of our time. Not individual acts of charity, always doomed to fail.

  • David French

    Alex, please look at the chart again. There was a big jump at the end of the Carter years, peaking in 1981, then a long decline for the remainder of the Reagan administration. Another jump in Bush 1. A long decline during the Clinton administration. Another jump at the start of Bush 2, a slight decline, then a second jump at the end of Bush 2 that continues to this day (during Obama). Guess when those jumps occur? During recessions. And those recessions have started under Carter, Bush 1, Clinton, and Bush 2. No party can avoid the business cycle.

    Also, if you were aware of actual growth in social spending under respective administrations, you’d know that we spent more money on social programs in every single administration since Carter. Every one. In fact, the rate of growth was slower under Clinton than Bush 2. So if you look at actual growth in social spending, Clinton had the most fiscal restraint (including enacting welfare reform). Republican presidents, including Reagan, Bush 1, and Bush 2 have demonstrated an utter inability to reign in entitlements. The only person who seemed to do it with any success was Clinton, with a Republican congress watching like a hawk.

    Clinton had the slowest growth in social spending and enacted welfare reform. And his record on the chart is the best since Eisenhower/Kennedy, (with Reagan just behind). Economic growth drives down poverty, not social spending.

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  • Right of Center

    Why does your chart differ so greatly from the chart at What gives?

  • David French

    My chart is for families, not individuals, and the chart has a 0 to 50 scale rather than 8 to 20 scale, which flattens the curve. The chart you link still shows the same trends, with the rate decreasing until the Great Society era, then bouncing along with the economic cycles.

  • RK

    Indeed. Now what? How do you reverse Great Society levels of subsidy for a devistating sub-culture that encompasses MILLIONS of people? I don’t see a way out of this mess unless the largess continues, redirected to pro-family incentives, for DECADES.

    So many of us just don’t see how many people are now dependent on the government for subsistance–both employees and consumers of programs. The scale of the problem we’ve created with our ‘just-write-a-check’ compassion is overwhelming. God help us.