Much of my writing and speaking address what might be seen as the failings of American society. Among these failings are poverty, troublingly high crime rates, rapidly disappearing standards of morality, a political system out of control and tremendous racial and economic tensions. By no means is this a complete list. Part of what wears on me – scares me – is that the solutions applied to the myriad failings are, far too often, destructive rather than helpful. In the face of this reality, I struggle to hear from God as to what he would have me do by way of contributing to turning this tide of helping, which keeps proving destructive instead of productive.
My thought that efforts to help often prove destructive is not a widely acknowledged or accepted premise. Consequently, a recent experience was unexpected and shocked me almost beyond belief. My wife is a marriage and family therapist. That means she attends a good many conferences. When she is in a generous mood, I get invited to tag along – to freeload. My latest invite was for a trip to Nashville, Tennessee. She was staying at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Conference Center, which is within easy walking distance of the Grand Ole Opry. The resort provides a shuttle to downtown Nashville. I planned to go to the Opry, eat barbecue downtown and enjoy the resort amenities.
That plan went well until my wife came in one night and told me she had met some people she wanted me to meet. They were in the exhibit area sharing information regarding their nonprofit. Meeting these people, or even going to the conference, was not in my plan. Denise, my wife, was excited and told me I had to meet these people. In the interest of peace in my marriage and not jeopardizing future freeloading opportunities, I agreed to meet the couple.
They were Meredith and Rob Kendall, who lead Renewing the Mind Network. Their brochure states, in part: “RTMS has grown nationally and is used to help men and women conquer the pain, anger and anxiety from their past and write a new story founded in Christ.” The 180 Program is a division of Renewing the Mind Network. It was because of the 180 Program that Denise said I had to meet this couple. Foundational to this program is The New Beginnings Study that, according to a brochure, “leads students to identify, understand and overcome the thoughts, feelings, behaviors and patterns that are the root cause of their negative cycles.”
The New Beginnings Study covers these topics: job readiness; Budgeting 101; relationships; parenting; and leadership. What I find encouraging is that these topics are presented in a fashion that addresses the causes of poverty and other societal ills. For example, there is no doubt that less-than- adequate parenting can contribute to the perpetuation of a generational cycle of poverty. This description is given for the parenting section: “Parenting is a four-week study for the student to learn that their actions and attitudes impact their children and focuses on directing the heart of the child and not merely gaining obedient behavior.”
My constant argument, my lament, is that we, as a nation, do not seriously look for the causes of conditions that are indicative of our failings as a society. Instead, we put programs and efforts in place that feel good and seem right but do little or no good. In fact, when it comes to addressing poverty and some other challenges, societal actions, especially those of governments, are destructive. When I met Rob and Meredith, Rob started making this point; I knew Denise was right to insist that I meet these people. Rob talked, Meredith monitored, and I listened. I walked away with a “180 Sample Book” and Rob’s book, “Breaking the Broken: Debunking the Myth of Social Justice.” Please go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1PK10z2AvI and view Rob Kendall being interviewed by Monica Schmelter regarding his book.
Talking with Kendall and reading “Breaking the Broken” has provided some relief now that I realize I am not alone in my thinking about the lack of effectiveness of most social programs. Talking about their previous efforts to help the poor, he writes, “Our service to the poor had been counterproductive. We were making things worse and adding to their struggle. We were actually breaking the broken. Trying to make someone more comfortable in a life that is falling apart isn’t really helping.”
Therein is the point. Regarding poverty, look at all the programs that have been put in place. Many studies have taken on this task. Several that I looked at contend some programs are helpful; however, the overall effect is not impressive by any means.
In a 2014 article titled “Paul Ryan’s Audit of Federal Anti-Poverty Programs Finds Many Are Actually Very Effective,” Igor Volsky wrote regarding an assessment by the House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-W.I. Here is some of what Volsky wrote:
The assessment, which is designed to kick off his campaign to revamp federal welfare programs, broadly characterizes federal aid as counterproductive and ineffective. Ryan argues that federal programs have contributed to the nation’s high poverty rate and ‘created what’s known as the poverty trap.’ The report argues, “Federal programs are not only failing to address the problem. They are also in some significant respects making it worse.”
Volsky then says, “Ryan’s own analysis points out, numerous progressive-minded spending programs have helped millions of Americans and significantly reduced the nation’s poverty rate. Below are 16 examples from Ryan’s own report of how the government can help lower-income Americans make ends meet.” He lists 16 programs. I find it revealing that the first program on the list of 16 is the Veterans Health Administration. He is talking about the VA. Given all that has happened with that organization, I hardly think it should be held up as effective.
Our goal should be ensuring that actions intended to help do help. The 180 Program brochure says that “Only 33 percent of inmates remain out of jail/prison more than three years.” Regarding inmates who participate in the program, the brochure states, “76 percent of inmates remain out of jail/prison more than three years.” The 33 percent statistic also appears in a 2014 report by the National Institute of Justice. The information here clearly shows the 180 Program to be very effective.
American governments at every level, especially the federal, are in the business of passing out money and in-kind support to citizens in poverty and other dire circumstances. Rob Kendall and congressman Paul Ryan are totally correct in saying, for the most part, these efforts do not move people to some higher level of living. They are made more comfortable in their difficult, challenging circumstance.
Kendall contends we should be about ensuring that people have resources, opportunities, instruction/work and relationships. This is not the approach of government, or of most efforts, to help people overcome poverty or other life challenges.
I encourage Americans to face the fact that very little of what our society is doing to help people is proving effective. As stated above, we are making life even worse for many people who are supposedly being helped.
Meredith and Rob Kendall are offering an effective approach – God’s approach. My call is for serious examination of what they offer. It is different, and we desperately need a different approach.