People disagree on what causes poverty. But, ultimately, the debate comes down to one question: Do you believe that poverty is due to character flaws in poor people themselves or due to economic issues?
Perhaps you believe, like Congressman Paul Ryan and his Republican House of Representatives colleagues, that there is little that can be done to address poverty, except make people suffer more so that they will finally improve their character and their desire to work.
But if you believe that increased poverty rates are mainly due to changes in our economic structure—such as a lack of manufacturing jobs, increased housing costs, the declining value of minimum wage and racial discrimination—then there is much that can and should be done.
Recently, I spent three days in Chicago attending the annual convention of the Community Action Partnership. This association consists of more than 1,000 county-based organizations, who, over the last 48 years, have received federal dollars to combat poverty. Each community-action group develops a plan to address the unique needs of their local community. Typical programs include Head Start, job development, emergency services, and housing and utility assistance.
Over the last year, I have been part of a News & Review project helping different Community Action Partnerships across the country to illuminate the impact of poverty and show how their programs are making a difference in people’s lives. We have created newspaper inserts in Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Florida, Kentucky, Georgia and California to tell these stories. As part of this project, I have visited Community Action agencies in 22 states.
Seeing the programs up close, seeing the people who are impacted by the programs, and seeing how the programs are accomplishing so much with so few resources has certainly increased my belief that we as a society need to do much more to end poverty.
For people living in poverty, it is hard to make it in America. When we have tough economic conditions, then it is likely that there will be people without food and shelter. This is not a character issue, it is an economic issue. The character of Americans did not suddenly decline with the banking crisis. Cutting food stamps, limiting affordable housing and ending job training will not end poverty. Quite the reverse.
As I spent time with the Community Action patriots, it was a joy to have a real discussion of the best ways to reduce poverty, what programs are actually working and how these programs can be improved. I was thoroughly impressed with the dedication, the thoughtfulness and the compassion of the Community Action staff.
Just as our soldiers overseas should be praised for their sacrifices, so should our soldiers fighting the war on poverty here in America be recognized for their sacrifices and devotion. They’ve been fighting this war for almost 50 years, and the end is not yet in sight.