The Republican and Democratic conventions are predictably going to feature considerable sparring over who owns the moral high ground in America and which party really does support the middle class. And both parties may offer their tired solutions for people in poverty.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney's website doesn't even mention poverty as an issue. Without offering a more nuanced perspective, Romney's words that "I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there," will probably define his position on the issue. Essentially, the Romney campaign and many Republicans have declared poverty to be a non-issue in this campaign.
President Barack Obama's approach to poverty, from the White House website appears to be increasing government spending on the safety net Romney referenced: we see here increases in spending on food stamps, increases in unemployment benefits, and (in a nod to conservatives) increases in certain welfare-to-work and work training programs.
I'm afraid both parties this year are missing a huge opportunity to spotlight a deep problem and offer actual, creative solutions to it. "Ignore them and they'll go away" works if you're merely trying to avoid a panhandler. However, it doesn't work if you're trying to actually move somebody from poverty to sustainable living. On the other hand, the government safety net has become in many cases an entangling web for people trapped in generational poverty. Meanwhile, Detroit suffers with a 34 percent poverty rate and a 17 percent unemployment rate (some reports indicate Detroit has closer to 50 percent functional unemployment).
Fortunately for Detroit, some people are not waiting for either party to come up with solutions to poverty -- they're doing it.
Here are some people and organizations the Republicans and Democrats could learn from. They're quietly but effectively waging war on Detroit poverty. (These are organizations with which I am personally familiar. There are certainly many others that could be highlighted that are doing a great work.)
One of these organizations recognizes that part of Detroit's poverty problem comes from the fact that we have a high number of returning citizens who are unable to work through normal channels and are often unable to even receive further training.
Harry Resig is a lawyer with a passion for restorative justice. He and the great people at Replanting Roots are working to employ returning citizens in a way that enables them to reconnect with their community and that offers them meaningful and sustainable employment. Ultimately, they plan an entrepreneurial fellowship for returning citizens. In a city where many of our unemployed citizens are unable to work because of a criminal record, Replanting Roots is an important part of any attempt to fight poverty.
Many of the attempts to fight poverty in Detroit stem from a recognition that today's children are tomorrow's poor. If the root causes can be addressed, perhaps the next generation can be affected.
City Mission Academy
I was privileged to tutor at City Mission Academy for two years. It is a small school in the Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit that intentionally takes aim at generational poverty by teaching children and teens the "hidden rules" that will enable economic success. Through tutoring and mentoring programs, this school has reached literally hundreds of Detroit families.
This involves several different organizations, but this summer over 250 children and teens were employed in various industries, ranging from gardening to small engine repair, in our relatively small Brightmoor neighborhood. One of these programs was the Brightmoor Youth Development Collaboration, which employed about 45 teenagers who were expected to follow rigorous expectations in terms of arriving on time, not talking on the phone during work hours, and not missing work without calling. At the end of the summer, each participant could earn $1500 plus several gift card awards for meeting program goals. In the course of the summer, these teens mowed vacant lots, farmed city land, boarded up vacant houses, and otherwise beautified their own neighborhood. These programs were largely funded by Marjorie Fisher.
These three organizations (and if I had had the time I could have highlighted hundreds) recognize a basic fact that our two political parties seem to miss: poverty is personal. I won't minimize the federal programs, because certainly a check from the government can keep a child from starving. Yet, a check from the government can't replace personal involvement in somebody's life; it should never become an alternative to walking life's road with our neighbors and friends who are struggling.
Tim Miller is a lifelong resident of Detroit. He works as a graphic designer and digital printer.
This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.