The Right's War On Poverty

The phrase "bleeding-heart conservatives" may sound like a contradiction in terms. But there's a new War on Poverty, and the shock troops are coming from the Republican right. GOP House Whip Newt Gingrich is offering to pay third graders in five poor Georgia communities $2 for every book they read this summer. He'll cover the cost of Earning for Learning with his speaking fees. HUD Secretary Jack Kemp wants the federal government to "find a way to guarantee college educations for inner-city, low-income, underclass, minority children." To those who question the cost, Kemp says tartly, "This country is affluent enough to make that commitment."

More than a burst of conscience is motivating conservative thinkers. As activist Paul Weyrich puts it, the Coalition Against Things that kept their political movement going through the '70s and '80s has collapsed along with the Berlin wall. Conservatives need a new message. It's no longer fashionable to rail against the welfare state without offering solutions. Accountability comes with being the ruling party. "If we are going to run a commercial with a 9-year-old girl in the ghetto saying the Pledge of Allegiance, then we have an obligation to care about the rest of her life," says Gingrich. Two weeks ago he orchestrated televised workshops in five cities to showcase community-based solutions. In Milwaukee, Democratic state Rep. Polly Williams, a former welfare mother, described how she pushed into law a voucher program that will let almost 1,000 low-income students attend private schools of their choice next fall with $2,500 apiece in state funding.

How big a role government will play in the new war on poverty is causing friction on the right. Purists worry that the do-good talk will lead to precisely what they've been complaining about all these years--more federal spending and bureaucracy. Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council, a resource network on family issues, says conservatives will jump ship if what's offered is just a cheaper version of Democratic ideas. But some conservatives say they can be true to themselves. "Just as the left has to be more willing to question "Government knows best,' the right has to rethink its laissez-faire attitude toward government," says Kemp. Ideas under discussion would replace welfare dependency with the work ethic by "empowering" the poor to make more of their own choices about education and housing. Advocates envision everything from classes in entrepreneurship skills to financial incentives for welfare mothers who identify absent fathers. "Rather than arguing with each other, we ought to try it all," says Gingrich.

"Bake sales': At a time when the words "permanent underclass" invoke despair, there is a surprising sense of optimism among conservatives. "Maybe it's because we're new to the game, we're not battle-weary," says Kate O'Beirne of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Those who have been in the trenches since the '60s are skeptical that the conservative awakening will lead to anything but more rhetoric about the magic of the marketplace. "We'll know they really believe in privatization when they start holding bake sales to pay for B-1 bombers," says Lynn Cutler, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. But after an absence of progress or, the poverty issue for more than a decade, voters are likely to welcome new ideas--whoever comes up with them.