THE BLOG

Poverty: Laziness or Lack of Opportunity?

03/19/2014 04:01 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2014

Recently Paul Ryan has had a lot to say about what he believes to be the true underpinnings of poverty. It's a product of a culture of laziness and complacency, he argues, fostered and supported by government anti-poverty programs, many of which were created through the War on Poverty. There's only one problem with those assertions -- the data says otherwise.

Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, housing programs, job training and more were all programs created and/or expanded through the War on Poverty and are some of the most powerful tools we have today to fight poverty. It's estimated that without government programs, the national poverty rate wouldn't be near today's 15 percent, or even 19 percent as it was in the 1960s, but a staggering 31 percent -- almost a third of our population.

By any standards, that's an incredible difference. Nevertheless, Ryan believes that by providing these resources, we've created "a culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men...not even thinking about working," and therein lies a basic misunderstanding of these crucial programs. At Heartland Alliance, the Midwest's leading anti-poverty organization, where I work, we see the faces of poverty, many of whom are beneficiaries of these programs and we've learned that the impact these programs have on their lives can be seen not only in the impact these benefits have, but by the gap they leave to be filled.

Social Security, for example, ensures seniors who have contributed to the economy for decades don't live in squalor, unable to afford the medication they need for their chronic life-threatening illnesses -- it decreased elderly poverty by nearly 40 percent in 2012. Food stamps ensure children don't go hungry or become malnourished if their families are unable to make ends meet that month -- it's decreased childhood poverty by three percent and have nearly eradicated severe malnutrition in the U.S. Housing programs ensure that families aren't forced to raise their children under viaducts and on streets. As a society, it's our most basic responsibility to ensure our fellow citizens have food, and shelter, and that when they are very ill, they can receive life-saving medication. These programs aren't putting their recipients on easy street as Ryan suggests, they're ensuring the most basic of human needs are met.

Nevertheless, this still doesn't show the whole picture. While poverty has decreased for some groups, new needs are arising. Today, fully 388,000 Illinoisans live in a household where someone works full-time and yet they are still poor. In line with that, since these anti-poverty programs were created, women have increasingly entered the workforce and the percentage of homes led by single parents has increased, however as the need for affordable childcare and transportation has grown, the availability of such resources has not.

For these working parents, take home pay is barely enough to keep the lights on, and they've increasingly moved to the suburbs in search of lower rent and cheaper prices. Unfortunately they haven't found it -- since 1990, the number of people in poverty in suburban parts of the Chicago region has increased by 95 percent. We're also increasingly older as a country, more likely to be minority, and/or immigrant, all of which are populations that traditionally have been mired in low-wage work. Even with the crucial anti-poverty programs we have in place, these are new and emerging faces of poverty -- the suburban poor who are working hard but not able to make ends meet, often relying on social programs to close the gap -- the very opposite of the picture of poverty Ryan paints.

Ryan is right about one thing, though -- ground level action is a key component in building strong communities. His solution to poverty is to cut government programs -- a solution that won't work -- but banding together and supporting each other as we support social service programs in our communities is key. That's been a core part of Heartland Alliance's approach for more than 125 years -- offering housing, healthcare, jobs and justice, meeting people where they are and providing immediate on-the-ground services with long-term support for people as they move towards a successful future. For Ryan, this community advocacy exists in a bubble -- his belief in bare-bones government would hurt those who are most in need. But our existing social programs are working, and when paired with on-the-ground services and community support, we can not only fight a war against poverty, we can win it.