We think about poverty all wrong. And because we think about poverty all wrong, much of our approach to alleviating it is wrong. Thus, poverty stubbornly persists and the trillions of dollars we spend barely nudges the needle to long-term poverty relief.
The problem is the disconnect between what poverty really is and what our public policies are trying to solve. A clear understanding of poverty is offered by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in their book, When Helping Hurts. “While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms…” the authors explain.
“Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness. Low-income people daily face a struggle to survive that creates feelings of helplessness, anxiety, suffocation and separation that are simply unparalleled in the lives of the rest of humanity.”
Most Americans don’t define their self-worth based on material possessions (or lack thereof). But our public policies too often focus on stuff. American families below the poverty line have access to a plethora of programs, benefits, cash, and services that provide them with things, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. But what they lack is a voice. Alleviating poverty means increasing opportunities to gain human dignity, purpose, and self-sufficiency.
Understanding that poverty encompasses more than just a dearth of disposable income is key to addressing the systemic issues at play. Those suffering from real poverty live a very different life and see their condition as something quite different from simply being “broke.” It’s more appropriate to say they lack the social capital—a buzz phrase, sure, but a useful one in this case—upon which to rely.
The poor lack many intangible things most of us take for granted, like having marketable skills and using them to contribute to our communities in a way society values. Absent a sense of their own dignity, purpose, and self-sufficiency, people are left with dependency to survive—a poison to the human soul. Any attempt to alleviate long-term poverty with little more than repeated handouts, without also connecting people with work, training, or education and building community connections, is not helping, it’s hurting.
If we truly intend to love our neighbor as God has commanded, we must recognize that the War on Poverty, fought LBJ-style with government programs, has been lost. A new approach must be charted—an approach that emphasizes keeping vulnerable Americans on track, developing valuable skills, individualizing plans that help people overcome their specific barriers to employment, and—most importantly—an exit strategy. With few exceptions, the goal should be to help people earn self-sufficiency through increased opportunity and work, not lock them into a lifetime of dependency and despair.
A good example of this approach is Bonton Farms, an inner-city Dallas urban farm that provides support for people to bridge the gap from poverty and prison and has helped hundreds of people gain a new sense of dignity and purpose. At Bonton Farms, it’s not about handouts. “This gives a lot of guys the opportunity to change,” one former inmate says.
“If they want to do better, they can. If they want to be more than just a street guy, a drug dealer, they can. If they want their kids to watch them be something more, it’s possible. That’s what we show them.”
Work is the key. Work means using one’s God-given talents and learned skills to provide a value to the community. Doing so confers on those suffering from poverty the very things they cry out for, such as hope, purpose, and a voice. They gain agency—the ability to make their own decisions—and learn skills necessary for them and their families to prosper. A job is the beginning of an exit strategy out of poverty.
This should be a bipartisan issue. Indeed, some of the greatest gains made in recent decades fighting poverty came via the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, passed by Republican majorities in the House and Senate and signed by Democrat President Bill Clinton. But even that was incomplete, and later presidents and governors dropped many of the work requirements that were its centerpiece.
These factors contributed to the recent launch of a multi-state poverty relief initiative called the Alliance for Opportunity. This includes three state-based think tanks, the Georgia Center for Opportunity, Pelican Institute in Louisiana, and Texas Public Policy Foundation. With a top-notch team and high-quality work that provides a toolkit for policymakers, we hope to help 1 million people out of poverty in these three states to show proof of what works for other states and for Congress to hopefully follow.
Our new efforts must begin with a full and fair assessment of how the current situation is helping keep vulnerable Americans on track. Existing programs, especially at the state levels, must be audited and made more transparent by improving data collection to evaluate desired outcomes. And we must partner with community groups closest to those in need—the real safety nets—while streamlining current programs with new ideas like empowerment accounts.
Additionally, we must remove barriers to ensure everyone has the right to earn a living. This includes removing obstacles like unreasonable occupational licensing, delay of a driver’s license for many who were formerly incarcerated, or simply instituting more apprenticeship programs to improve access to skills training.
And last, but certainly not least, we must address poverty through criminal justice reforms, which our new initiative aims to do. This includes restoration through diversion programs and specialty courts, life and work skills through rehabilitation and transition programs, and a productive path back into the community for the formerly incarcerated.
We must do more than send a check every month like the child tax credit payments sent by Congress in the second half of 2021. We must treat the poor like human beings, not just a number. We must meet them where they are and help them achieve their full potential.
If poverty was as simple as a lack of funds, then surely the money spent thus far would have made a bigger dent. But it’s not that simple. It never was. We’ve merely sought too long for easy answers. Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and pursue a new path to eliminate dependency and restore the dignity of work so that more people can be financially self-sufficient.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.