THE BLOG
02/25/2016 05:01 pm ET Updated Feb 25, 2017

Democrats and Republicans Don't Really Care About the Homeless and Residents of Public Housing

I know that it sounds harsh to say that Democrat and Republican leaders don't really care about the homeless and residents of public housing. But, in my opinion, after looking at the facts, it is the only conclusion that you can come to.

The intentions of all of those leaders who fought to provide support for their fellow citizens in need has always been honorable. Democrats and Republicans alike have fought for and voted to support programs and funding to provide assistance to our most vulnerable citizens. By almost every measure, however, the system that they have poured money into has failed. Worse, it has led to a downward spiral of intergenerational poverty that has trapped many of those they intended to help.

At the Worcester Housing Authority our experience is typical of most other housing authorities that serve the homeless and the poor. Today, we count 80 percent of our adult residents as unemployed full time. More than 40 percent of our adults don't have a high school or general equivalency diploma. More than 50 percent of our adults don't even have a driver's license.

The saddest statistic of all is that we can trace as many as five generations of the same families living in public housing and relying on public assistance. Knowing these disgraceful statistics, the men and women in public office who allow this system to continue are responsible for its dismal results.

I am a lifelong Democrat. I have benefited from public housing, good public schools, free health care and benefits for veterans with disabilities. Without these benefits my life would be very different. I am always thankful for the support of my fellow citizens, and that is why I have never complained when asked to pay taxes of any kind. My brothers and sisters and I have all benefited from the tax dollars of others. It is only fitting that we now pay a share so that others in need may benefit.

But, although I am a Democrat, I have found the traditional Democratic approach to the issue of public assistance to be a burden on the very people it purports to help. While Democrats have always been willing to help those in need, they have seldom been willing to ask anything in return for that assistance.

Not that long ago a leading Democratic congressman referred to efforts to require work as "slavery." This mindset has held reasonable people back from proposing changes that nearly everyone in the larger community knows make sense.

Further, Democratic administrations have promulgated rules that guarantee that recipients of public assistance will remain stuck in an unending cycle of poverty and government assistance. Nevertheless, even with the failures of this system staring them in the face, many Democrats have been unwilling to search for new ways to take their noble intentions and turn them into a program that leads to a better life for those receiving that assistance.

Democrats need to fight for the families on public assistance with the same intensity of purpose as they do when they are tackling the barons of Wall Street. Throwing a few dollars at families in need only further compounds their dependency.

The Republican approach has been equally wrongheaded. Typically, Republican lawmakers have expressed the opinion that certain government programs should be eliminated and that individuals receiving public assistance should "pull themselves up by their bootstraps." This approach may appeal to citizens who are tired of a system of unending public assistance, but it is unrealistic and would likely lead to greater harm. After several generations of dependency on public assistance, it will take a generation of hard work from those in government looking to help and from the recipients of public assistance.

I believe our country is headed in the wrong direction. By increasing numbers, our poorest families are becoming less educated, less employed and more reliant on government services and support. A system of assistance that was designed as a temporary helping hand has become a permanent way of life.

Alarmingly, reliance on public assistance has become a sort of perverse legacy handed down from one generation to the next. In the same way that children with hard-working parents model the behavior of their role models, so too children who know only public assistance follow the path shown to them.

Requiring Work Produces Concrete Results

Like so many things facing our government, I believe the answer lies somewhere between the traditional Democratic and Republican responses.

In my opinion, we should invest a small amount more. The money that we invest in our fellow citizens should be focused on efforts to attain self-sufficiency. To that end, we need to acknowledge that self-sufficiency can never be attained unless the person is willing to work hard to achieve that goal. Our current system has required next to nothing from those receiving benefits. It is time for recipients of public assistance to be required to participate in their own futures.

In Worcester, we have a program called "A Better Life" that requires all able-bodied adults to go to work or attend school. Over the past few years, here is what we have been able to accomplish:

  • More than tripled the number employed full time from 20.9 percent to 65.5 percent of those enrolled in the program for at least one year.
  • Increased overall employment to 73.4 percent.
  • Nearly quadrupled the number of residents participating in education/training programs from 12.3 percent to 45.6 percent.
  • Increased personal savings/escrow for former clients/graduates from2,700 to108,781 (aggregate) -- an average of6,193 per client.
  • For former clients/graduates personal debt decreased from177,806 to107,287 (aggregate) - a reduction of about 40 percent.

Public support for our program has been overwhelmingly positive. Nevertheless, Democrats and republican leaders have been reluctant to support our efforts. Currently, our program only operates in public housing supported by state government. Even with these dramatic results, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) refuses to allow us to implement the school/work requirement in the units it subsidizes in Worcester.

I am hard-pressed to explain why our leaders would allow a completely failed system to continue. Those who purport to care for those less fortunate should be held accountable for the current failures.

Previous posts in this series:

The Failure of Public Housing - Temporary Help Has Become a Permanent Way of Life

Requiring Work/School in Public Housing - A Model for Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Fix America's "Dead End Street" by Helping Public Housing Residents Find "Main Street"

Public Housing Solves the Symptom - Homelessness - But Should Focus on the Problem

To learn more about A Better Life, visit www.worcester-housing.com or email the author at rmariano@worcester-housing.com.