Why are so many people poor in prosperous America? Is that because of bad personal choices, or bad economic structures? What do we need--better values and stronger families, or better policies and stronger government? Does it take a village to raise a child, or a family?

Those who aren't thrilled with the either-or choices here might want to listen to Ronald S. Sider. He is an evangelical Protestant theologian whose new book, ``Just Generosity'' (Baker Book House), has been drawing ``Amens'' from within and beyond the choirs of faith.

Sider belongs to an evolving, eclectic movement of Christian leaders who think they can break the ideological logjam of social policy debate. His book lays out a ``holistic approach'' to what he calls the scandal of widespread poverty in the richest nation in history.

In seeing the problems of poverty, both liberals and conservatives are visually impaired, according to Sider, whose book is subtitled ``A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America.''

``I think it's just blindness, stubborn blindness on the part of liberals, to deny that wrongheaded personal choices contribute to poverty in this nation,'' said Sider, a Mennonite who is president of Evangelicals for Social Action, a national organization based in Wynnewood, Pa. ``And it's stubborn blindness on the part of conservatives to deny that structural issues like racism and a variety of economic systemic factors contribute to poverty.''

He was speaking in this instance of the perpetual arguments over the causes of poverty. Conservatives usually trace the problems to bad choices, such as having children out of wedlock or abusing drugs. Liberals tend to blame the structures, such as the proliferation of low-wage jobs.

As for solutions, conservatives stress the need for individual responsibility and family values, while liberals look to society and government. The either/or choices are typified in the debate surrounding first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's 1996 book, ``It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us.''

``I'm arguing, let's get beyond this silliness of arguing whether it takes a village or a family to raise a child,'' Sider said in a telephone interview from his home in Philadelphia. He lives in the racially mixed, working-class neighborhood of Germantown, and teaches at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

``If we need anything, we need more wholesome, joyful families where mom and dad stay together for a lifetime, love each other and raise their children. But we need, for that family, not just good family values. They've got to have an income that pays a living wage so they could have a decent house, health insurance, and a quality education.''

Sider added, ``In a sense, liberals and conservatives are both half-right. And I'm glad to affirm what's right in both and get on with the solutions that grow out of both.''

Moving from biblical themes--especially the collective obligation to restore the poor to full dignity in community--``Just Generosity'' looks at a number of practical solutions. For example, Sider proposes that the nation embrace a combination of policies aimed at lifting any family in which parents collectively work at least 40 hours a week to 120-130 percent of the poverty level.

The income boost, he suggests, can come from an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, which supplements the wages of the working poor through the federal tax system; a minimum-wage hike; and refundable Dependent Care and Child Tax Credits. He leaves it to economists to find the right mix of these policies.

The number of workers whose full-time wages fail to lift them out of poverty rose by just 459,000 during 1998, despite the economic boom, according to Census data analyzed recently by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a private group in Washington.

In 1998, the latest year for which figures are available, 34.5 million Americans fell below the official poverty line--$16,660 for a family of four. Thanks largely to low unemployment, there were 1.1 million fewer poor Americans that year than the year before.

Still, the poverty rate in the nation's longest period of economic expansion remains higher than in nearly all years of the economically turbulent 1970s, and higher than in most industrialized nations.

In addition, the poor have been getting poorer, with 40 percent of them living at less than half the poverty level.

Ideologues have sparred over whether government should help the poor or leave that to churches and charities. But that's another false

choice, in Sider's view. He doesn't think charity could or should replace the hand of government, which he sees as biblically sanctioned. Nonetheless he is bullish on the work of faith-based organizations that have risen to the challenge of welfare reform, meeting the spiritual and material needs of those coming off the rolls.

At the same time, his ``holistic framework'' stresses any effort to end poverty must have at its core ``policies that strengthen marriage as the norm.''

Within the faith communities, Sider is one of the leaders of a broad anti-poverty alliance, The Call to Renewal, which brings together Catholics, liberal Protestants, and conservative evangelicals as well as black church leaders.

As he sees it, the door is wide open for Christians to help end the tragedy of widespread poverty in America. Aside from the nation's prosperity, the secular policy establishment is duly recognizing the successes of many faith-based initiatives.

Middle-class Christians are critical to Sider's vision. ``We need their money for the voluntary stuff, and we need their votes for providing health care for everybody, a living wage for everybody, and schools that work for everybody.''

Despite the positive developments, he is worried.

``There's certainly pervasive materialism and that makes me pessimistic about really succeeding. So many Christians are hardly any different in their consumeristic materialism than their unbelieving neighbors,'' said the Yale-educated theologian, whose books include the best-selling ``Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.''

For that reason, Sider leaves unanswered the unsettling pair of questions he raises near the end of his latest book: ``Will we (American Christians) take the path of generosity and justice? Or will we slip slowly into ever greater self-gratification?''

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