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Does conservative philanthropy ignore the poor?

Conservative philanthropy once helped dispel the stereotype of conservatives as uncaring or hardhearted by developing thoughtful private approaches to alleviating poverty. Why has it been abandoned today?

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By contrast, the conservative choice to abandon grants to advance the theory and practice of civil society, and to resort instead to shrill, divisive, short-term political advocacy, can only erase this favorable impression, confirming the American people in their predisposition to regard conservatives as selfish and hardhearted.

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Seemingly anti-poor remarks like those by Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are no longer counterbalanced in public estimation by a vigorous conservative civil-society plan to combat poverty.

Similarly, Rick Santorum’s lone effort to construct a “coherent conservative agenda for low-income Americans” by promoting healthy families and communities is lost in the storm of invective.

But beyond the problem of political image lies the more substantial issue of conservatism’s enduring charitable obligation to the poor. Ardent advocacy for reduced government spending is fine, but it must be matched with serious regard for the needs of those affected. This is a moral demand upon a movement that takes moral demands seriously.

For conservatives to escape not only the appearance but also the damning reality of hardheartedness, their philanthropies must devote serious resources once again to the revival of civil society.

Above all, they must locate, support, and become directly involved with the grass-roots groups in their own communities that best demonstrate the power of civil society.

A group of wealthy conservative business executives in Denver recently showed how to go about this. While they are second to none in their devotion to cutting government, they also realize that this imposes a special obligation on them to support private groups that work with the poor.

One of their favorites is Step 13, a small, scruffy rehabilitation center for addicts run by the recovering alcoholic Bob Coté. Each of them has visited Step 13 often, becoming personally acquainted with his effective work and good stewardship, admiring his reliance on personal spiritual transformation rather than expensive, government-financed therapy.

When Mr. Coté was faced with a sudden need to buy his rented space, the businessmen immediately began to drop off unsolicited but large checks.

“All the mean-spirited, right-wing conservatives raised more than the million and half we needed to buy the building, and they decided to let us use the extra money to bring the building up to code. God bless them,” Mr. Coté told me.

Many more local civic leaders across the country must be able to say the same before conservatism will have met its moral obligation to replace the government programs it so disdains with the vibrant, effective private alternatives it so much admires.

• William Schambra directs the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal and is a regular contributor to The Chronicle’s opinion section.

This article originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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