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When Paul Ryan gave his farewell address as speaker of the House on Dec. 19, he called on future lawmakers to make poverty issues a greater priority. Ryan’s mentor on poverty-fighting, Bob Woodson, age 81, sat in the front row. While politicians have come and gone, Woodson has toiled on the front lines since the 1970s as the godfather of neighborhood-based organizations that help people help themselves. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation in Washington, D.C.
Think back 20 years, when compassion wasn’t such a dirty word. Do you think Republicans have less empathy for the poor now than they did? Yes. I do. They have been too narrowly focused on policy and politics. We’re in a cultural war. Conservatives are failing their own cause, and therefore the country, because they do not know how to properly defend the values of the Founders in the marketplace. Right now the strategy is to meet together in think tanks, celebrate some conservative pundit who has a best-selling book, and meet among themselves.
You think they’ve lost the common touch? They’ve lost the common touch. They don’t have a ground strategy. The left is in the universities, on school boards, at city council meetings. They’ve shut down free speech on campuses. That’s the ground strategy they have. Conservatives and Republicans have strictly an aerial strategy. They’re criticizing what the other side is doing without coming up with an alternative construct that speaks to the needs. The way you influence people’s belief on values is to demonstrate in their lives how these values improve their lives.
Do you think this aerial vs. ground strategy is costing Republicans the next generation and minorities? They’re not even attempting to speak to these demographics.
Have Democrats learned anything from the mistakes of the past? They’re happy if 70 cents of the dollar goes to those who serve poor people. Democrats ask not what problems are solvable but which are fundable. If your job depends on me being sick or dependent—that dictates more of your behavior than compassion.
‘Conservatives are failing their own cause, and therefore the country, because they do not know how to properly defend the values of the Founders in the marketplace.’
For helping the homeless, what do you think of “Housing First”? No strategy is going to work without an investment in human capital development. If you just deal with brick and mortar and you don’t deal with flesh and blood first, it’s doomed. Not everybody is poor for the same reason. You cannot have a single approach to it. Some poor people are just broke, but their character is intact. For them, programs, housing, training opportunities work. They use the welfare system the way it was intended, as an ambulatory service, not a transportation system.
What about the others? Category two: people who tried to be independent but ran into barriers. There are a lot of perverse incentives against people being independent. Category three: people who are physically and mentally handicapped or disabled. We’ve got to help them. Category four: people who are homeless and they’re poor because of character flaws. They need redemption and transformation for any program to work. I have witnessed community development projects all my life, and the only ones I’ve seen work are when you develop human capacity first.
You took Paul Ryan on a learning tour in 2014: Now he’s retired. Do other policymakers have the kind of understanding he got from that experience? I haven’t seen any of them. Policymakers come up with some gimmick, give it a name, roll it out, then parachute it into a community, with great fanfare. It doesn’t really take seed, because the people there who are supposed to benefit haven’t been involved in the development of it.
So it’s a tug of war between Republicans and Democrats, between decreasing and increasing the budget, but it’s lacking bottom-up solutions? African proverb: When bull elephants fight, the grass always loses. And it’s always the poor. In states controlled by Republicans, the face of poverty looks the same as those controlled by Democrats.
Why does it look the same? Because of fundamental elitism on both the left and the right. We are imbued with this notion that somehow character is related to education and celebrity—which means people without those are discounted.
What do you think of President Trump? He has implemented the right policies in terms of national defense and Supreme Court appointees. Another strength—he’s not another guilty white man.
What do you mean by that? Most politicians both left and right of center who are white approach the question of race from a position of guilt. I don’t find that helpful. Trump doesn’t. It’s unfortunate that the president is so morally challenged. Character stands above all else: Setting a tone that if you’re opponents, you have to be enemies—that’s not helpful. He’s extreme in what he says and does, but that makes his intentions more obvious.
What do you think about Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer? They’re not serious people. They’re so preoccupied with defeating Trump or challenging him that everything they do is just in opposition.
What about Newt Gingrich and his impact on politics? Gingrich is someone else who is morally challenged. He’s a very smart guy, but he has become so partisan. On occasions he will challenge the president—but Newt Gingrich is so inside Washington.
George W. Bush? He never shifted out of campaign mode when it came to issues of faith. He hired John Dilulio, a liberal Democrat, to run the faith-based office. There’s an example of guilty white men. When it comes to the issues of race and poverty, they always have to make concessions to their opponents and concede to them.
Barack Obama? Instead of bringing us together on race he left it more polarized. Obama was all windup and no pitch.
Looking back, what do you consider your top accomplishment? Taking Republicanism into the inner city and creating a good image of it. Republicans have been doing everything since then to discourage that. They never built on it.
Looking back, what’s your top disappointment? Conservatives have not sought allies among the poor and minorities to defend traditional virtues. We’re in a cultural war. The only way we who believe in traditional values will win is by finding allies among the people who suffer most from it.
What’s the biggest challenge we face overall? Finding an answer to emptiness among young people is the biggest challenge that we face. There has to be a moral reformation in America. Whites who voted for Trump and live in trailer parks have more in common with black inner-city people confronting the drugs epidemic. They are not being represented by people on the left or the right. The embrace of the traditional values of our Founders is a life-and-death issue to people in these communities, as opposed to a foil in some intellectual contest.
What does the new American dream look like? A makeover of the old American dream—applying old values to a new reality. We spend so much time trying to give to our children the things we didn’t have that we fail to give them what we did have. What I’m trying to do in my work in communities is resurrect these old values—I’m trying to take us back to the future.