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

12/08/2015 03:47 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2016

We are used to hearing candidates running for public office talk about the divide between "Wall Street" and "Main Street." Entire campaigns have been built around the notion that we need to level the playing field so that average Americans, those who live on Main Street, U.S.A., have an equal shot with the lobbyists, bankers, financiers and moneyed class represented by Wall Street.

But there is another street that is decidedly different from Wall Street and Main Street. This street is populated by the poorest in our communities. Many of these citizens have little education, very limited income, and a long list of personal challenges. Many of these citizens, at one time or another, have been on public assistance and will likely end up on public assistance again in the future. These citizens exist only in the shadows of our political discourse, barely mentioned and almost never advocated for in the halls of power.

While all of these citizens are different, most have one trait in common: They have little or no hope for the future. For them the American Dream does not exist or exists only in books and movies. They live on the same street that their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents lived on - a "Dead End Street." And they live in every city and most towns across our great country.

A Failed System

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. The intention of this support was always to provide those in need with a temporary helping hand.

For many of the millions of residents who live in public housing, the consequences have been a disaster. In my home city of Worcester, Massachusetts, about 80 percent of our adult residents are unemployed (full time), 40 percent don't have a high school diploma or a GED. Many of these families have lived in public housing for generations. Rather than a temporary helping hand, public housing has become a sort of perverse legacy handed down from one generation to the next.

I believe our country is headed in the wrong direction. If you look at the most vexing problems facing our proud nation, you will find, at least in part, that our system of public assistance has contributed to the problem. By almost any measure, our system of providing government assistance has been an abject failure.

UNEMPLOYED: The vast majority of those citizens who are on public assistance are unemployed. The longer their family has been on public assistance, the more likely they are to be unemployed. By the second and third generation, the expectation of employment, for many of these citizens, has all but vanished. Some do not have a single member of their family that has held a long-term, full-time job. Being unemployed is what they know; it is acceptable.

LESS EDUCATED: Unfortunately, many children from families who have been on public assistance for generations have no expectation of success in school. When they fail, it is shrugged off. Who needs an education when the government will provide for your basic needs?

MORE HEALTH PROBLEMS: Researchers have long since established that there is a strong relationship between poverty and personal health. If you are poor, you are more likely to develop illnesses, become injured, become disabled and even die early.

MORE LIKELY TO BE A SINGLE PARENT: When President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty began, only 7 percent of children in America were born out of wedlock to a single parent. By 2010 that figure was over 40 percent. In public housing, we see as many as 80 percent of our families living as single parent head of household. Most of them are women.

Democrats Are Wrong and So Are Republicans

I am a lifelong Democrat. I am thankful for the programs, many advocated for by Democrats, which have helped me throughout my life. 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.

Unfortunately, while Democrats have always been willing to help those in need, they have seldom been willing to ask anything in return for that assistance. Further, Democratic administrations have promulgated rules virtually guaranteeing 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.

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.

In Worcester, we have developed a program that requires able-bodied adults to either go to work or attend school. The results have far exceeded our expectations. We have doubled the number of residents employed, going from 35 percent to 75 percent. We have nearly tripled their wages and tripled the number of residents attending school or training. There is a clear path that leads from public housing's Dead End Street all the way to Main Street and it starts with asking more from our residents and then helping them get there.

Next post in this series:
Public Housing Solves the Symptom (Homelessness) - It Should Focus on the Problem