I’m getting used to being surprised. Like learning that Ronald Reagan started the largest welfare program we have today, EITC which supports low wage workers. Like finding out that FDR believed government handouts were counter-productive saying, “we must and we shall quit this business of relief” (See Poverty Quotes Page for information on all the following quotes). I’m surprised that Bill Clinton said “she still got up every day [his mother], no matter what the hell was going on, and she got herself ready and went to work….. It kept food on the table, but it gave us a sense of pride and meaning and direction….I couldn’t imagine what it would be like for a child to grow up in a home where the child never saw anybody go to work…” I’m surprised Mother Teresa said, “We have no right to judge the rich. For our part, what we desire is not a class struggle but a class encounter, in which the rich save the poor and the poor save the rich.”
I always assumed poverty was complex and that I had much to learn, but now I know that was an understatement. My years of volunteering, studying and interviewing those in and around poverty have proved that to me. I have also learned that perhaps no issue in the U.S. is as controversial as our opinions on poverty and welfare. They are issues with a storied past fought on political battle lines decades old. Even the raw facts are seemingly always in contest. We hear news reports describing a growing problem of the downtrodden such as half of our kids are going hungry or that homelessness is running rampant. But it is just as easy to hear that those in poverty own their own homes or stories of the welfare cheat waving around free cell phones. As a nation we have a shallow understanding of poverty and absolutely no consensus as to how to fight it. How did things get so confused and politicized?
It didn’t just happen overnight. We have been confusing ourselves for about 6 decades. In the 1960’s Lyndon Johnson established his great society programs and declared a war on poverty. We created, spent and fought for more than 20 years to eradicate poverty but by 1988 President Reagan avowed, “We declared a war on poverty and poverty won.” Even so we fought on, increased spending and programs and 18 years later Clinton passed welfare reform in order to fix the system. In the meantime we formed thousands of charities such as food banks, homeless shelters and children’s programs. Since welfare reform in 1996 we have spent another 18 years expanding and tweaking programs, giving to charities, and volunteering our time. When we look at the numbers, 15% of the population is in poverty today, exactly where it was in 1966. About half the American population thinks, therefore we failed. The other half thinks, thank goodness we have done what we’ve done - imagine how bad it would be if we hadn’t.
Perhaps I can shed some light on all of this. Where are we and what should we do? We all agree we want fewer people in poverty and we have resources to devote to the problem. I’m just a citizen, a married father of five, businessman, middle class CPA, and I’m happy to share what I know after years of study and experience. I’ve taken the time to work with the poor, evaluated foundations and charities, waded through our national welfare programs, studied the expert’s reports and books. Here is my report to you - from one citizen to another.
I have come to believe it is citizens like you and I that have to solve this problem. The experts rarely address the whole picture – government, charity and individual volunteers. They are often in too deep – like studying the nutritional value of school lunches. Or they might have an agenda and generate reports to advancing it. I have none – I’m just a citizen trying to sort out a problem that seems to me to be solvable. I see my job as taking all that data, summarizing it and simplifying it so we can take the view from the top of the hill and make improvements. After all, it is we citizens who know the poor well because we live with them, work with them, mentor them, volunteer with them and are relatives to them. We’ve been them and we are them. We need to take a critical look, get involved and make some progress on poverty. I’m convinced we can do it with a little thought and analysis and a whole lot of common sense.
There is nothing revolutionary in this website as to how to address our problems. Quite the contrary. We have allowed simple facts we all know and believe to get convoluted by thousands of charities, complex government programs and a belief we can sit back and let the experts handle things. That’s a bad idea. We have to get involved and when we do good things will happen. Then maybe someday Shaleec won’t be worried about poverty pimps anymore.