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Many of us have a misguided understanding of how to be compassionate to those in poverty. Currently, a debilitating welfare culture exists within nations that have adopted to some degree the welfare state model. Many of us have grown accustomed to viewing poverty and compassion narrowly. Eventually, we must face not just minor reform, but the overturning of the old paradigm. Those working in the private sector, to whom the new welfare responsibilities will fall, must begin to adopt the following three perspectives.

First, we can no longer believe that simply writing a check satisfies the call of compassion. The poor are asking for much more than our money. We must begin to make the more difficult sacrifices of our time, energy, and talents. We must go to the poor where they live and enter into their poverty in order to help them rise above it. In our efforts to help those suffering the effects of poverty, dollars may be the least important consideration.

Another attitude that must change is our tendency to believe that, as individuals, we cannot make a meaningful contribution. When faced with a homeless person, the temptation is to think “What could I, with my limited experience and resources, do?” We therefore turn to simply giving money. We need to rethink this response and consider other ways we can contribute; perhaps volunteering at a private shelter, or maybe starting a shelter where there is none, or even having a conversation with a homeless person, as a person, and ask them what they truly need. This is the more radical approach because it requires that we listen to the poor and allow them to become part of the solution, not just the target of our pity.

A third attitude we must adopt is to stop viewing the poor as incapable. One of the most egregious faults of current government programs is the hidden assumption that the poor will always remain poor. While admitting that some people suffer from more than the effects of poverty, which prevent them from becoming productive members of society, many of those receiving government assistance can contribute to the elevation of their standard of living. The poor themselves have to be a part of the solution to their own problems. Requiring some level of participation and responsibility on the part of individuals will offer the opportunity for more than dollars or a job, it will offer the opportunity for self-esteem.

This is the beauty of the principle of subsidiarity: It advises us to start one person at a time, one family at a time, dealing with whoever is nearest to us. The poor will be restored to wholeness only through transforming lives and families, not by temporarily alleviating their material poverty through handouts from impersonal government programs.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London.  During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems.  As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.

As president of the Acton Institute, Fr.