There is a lot of talk about poverty and its causes and effects, but rarely do the discussions escape the blame game and delve into serious considerations about real world solutions for getting people out of poverty.
The debate usually focuses on whether we should help those living in poverty through government-run programs or whether charity, churches and the "free market" will meet the need. The argument for the latter typically is framed by the determination that the government is inefficient and just serves to multiply the problem, and even intentionally creates disincentives for the poverty-stricken to attain self-sufficiency.
On all accounts, we are having the wrong conversation.
The argument for eliminating the government from the solution is unrealistic and frankly a waste of time. At the same time, so is the idea that the government alone will be able to solve the issue singlehandedly.
The last time I looked it up there were over 47 million Americans on food stamps and that number looks like it may continue growing. The task ahead may be tall, but I refuse to accept that it is a problem that we can't fix.
Based on my personal experiences and what I have witnessed firsthand in other countries, there are three elements to eliminating poverty for the millions of Americans that are within its icy grip. These are:
1. Effective social programs
2. Strengthened family structure
3. Quality education
In this blog I am going to focus on the first item, effective social programs. The other two proposals warrant separate posts.
I recognize that the social safety net which I have listed as effective social programs is considered controversial, but what I am proposing is not the social safety net in its current application. Social programs should be there to help people improve their lives while they are going through difficult times. For some people that may be over several years, but the system was not created to sustain generations of families.
These programs are not just intended to help the immediate beneficiary, but also the community as a whole. We all benefit by sustained efforts to not create a permanent underclass.
The imagery of people in poverty living high on the hog in their taxpayer-funded housing eating lobster and filet mignon is a fallacy and quite destructive to seriously solving generational poverty. If we are honest, most government assistance does not give enough benefits to maintain a middle class standard of living for an extended period of time, nor do I believe it should. But at the same time, I believe offering a helping hand during lean times is part of our greatness as a country.
Let's be clear -- no one wants to be poor. It is not the dream that people have when they are young. Many children that grow up in these circumstances are left to feel hopeless, and that there is a limit on their abilities because of where they have started in life. Poverty is suffocating to these kids and makes them feel like they have to fight to live, never mind achieve and prosper.
Part of the problem is that even with the jobs that are available to those living in poverty, many would still be living the same quality of lifestyle as they would on public assistance because they lack marketable skills. This reality causes some in poverty to decide that it doesn't make sense to work. On top of that when negative events happen, and they do in everyone's life, those struggling are easily pushed back into despair. There has to be real avenues out of poverty for people.
There is dignity that is inherent in work and achievement, and people can achieve more than they believe possible if given the right resources. And we can't have a system where living on welfare is the same or similar to holding full-time employment at one or even multiple jobs because that would create an unfair and ineffective system. Social policy must include training opportunities and providing individuals with the ability to live in dignity. But the pride that comes from achievement can only be earned by the individual, not given by the government.
I believe that the social safety net has to be tied to giving people the training they need to survive and thrive. From technical job training, life skills, anger management or parenting classes if needed. Tying some benefits to actual activities that can teach marketable skills and aid in growing a feeling of control and self-sufficiency in the lives of recipients is a way to not only provide a means for people to make a living, but also aid American companies that need qualified candidates for jobs.
We have to be training people for the jobs that currently exist or will be created in the near term. Training for the jobs that we have lost over the last 20-plus years will be futile since many of those jobs are never coming back in the way they existed before. The world has changed, the skills needed to survive have changed, and we have to do better to prepare all of our citizens to handle the economy as it will be or we as a country won't be able to compete.
As someone who was raised using welfare, food stamps, and Section 8 housing, I know firsthand how difficult that life is. My disabled grandmother who raised me did not want a life for me of being a future welfare mother, as she called it, and encouraged me to do well in school and to get a good education and training. Without public assistance and my grandmother's wisdom that she passed on to me when I was a child, I doubt I would have been able to reach the professional success I have today.
I have not received welfare or food stamps since I left my grandmother's house to attend college. I still had many struggles during that time including failing out of college and losing my scholarship, and was close multiple times to falling backwards. I persevered and got a full-time job as a live-in nanny and went back to college at night, but it was because I had already been taught that a better way of life was achievable. We must ensure that every child believes that. Even more importantly -- it must be true.
We have to decide what kind of country and people we want to be, and we have to start investing in our people. It also requires that the individuals who receive benefits are required to play an important role in their own recovery. Accountability still lies with the individual, but we all pay the price when large numbers of our neighbors and fellow citizens fall through the cracks.
I hope to continue the discussion about how we ensure our social programs are focused on providing pathways to independence rather than just minimal sustenance.