The Policy Shop: Solving poverty (the right way)

The Policy Shop: Solving poverty (the right way)

On April 9, the U.S. House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Welfare and Work came to the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago for a field hearing to explore how the dignity of work provides a solution to poverty.

The expansion of work opportunities as a key to addressing the poverty problem is a core principle behind the Illinois Policy Institute’s Center for Poverty Solutions.

The members of congress heard from Matt Paprocki, the center’s founder and institute president, about his friend Steven Blake’s rise out of poverty. Blake had once been a homeless veteran staying at the very mission at which the hearing was held. Now he has his own business with employees selling fresh fruit to downtown commuters.

One day Matt noticed Blake selling fruit in the freezing-cold rain. Matt stopped and asked him, “Why are you out here today?” Blake pointed to a man holding a sign reading, “Please help.” He said, “That used to be me. I asked everyone that walked by me how they can help me. Today I ask the opposite. I ask everyone that walks by how I can help them.”

He smiled: “I’ve got to be out here. People need me.”

That’s dignity. It’s what the U.S. Constitution’s framers meant with the phrase “the pursuit of happiness.”

The U.S. government spends about $1.2 trillion a year on over 80 different programs. U.S. Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla., said during the hearing the U.S. Government Accountability Office cannot tell congress which programs work. He said the money’s there, but it needs to be put behind efforts that actually solve poverty. Hern had himself grown up on welfare. He went without indoor plumbing until he was in the eighth grade, and eventually rose to become a businessman who created many jobs from entry level to executive.

“The thing that is really nice about America is that we try to take care of our people,” Hern said. “Because when you don’t care about your people, you don’t care as a nation.”

Hern was no longer on the committee, but said the issue is so important to him that he attended the field hearing on his 30th wedding anniversary.

“It’s sad that this issue in America is partisan at all. It should be bipartisan. We should all agree that every person should deserve a job and the opportunity to work,” he said.

In the nearly 60 years since the War on Poverty began, the U.S. has spent $12 trillion in taxes to see the poverty rate remain fairly stable, currently at 11.5%. The system was not intended to make poverty bearable across generations of dependency: it was supposed to help people escape poverty.

President Johnson’s director of the War on Poverty, Sargent Shriver, came to Chicago in 1966 to recruit lawyers for the effort and said this: “There are no giveaways in the War on Poverty. We’re investing in human dignity, not doles.”

That clarity of purpose has become muddled over the decades. But the importance of dignity was underscored during the hearing when Chicago entrepreneur Ehi Aimiuwu’s story was shared.

She was a homeless, battered mother of three with the state child welfare agency getting involved in her situation. She tried to work her way up by braiding hair, hauling her kids on public transit to clients’ homes, sometimes putting in 12 hours a day. After several years her hands grew arthritic and she was physically worn out.

“We needed so much back then. I didn’t know that I could apply for food stamps, because it seemed like I was constantly having to jump over hurdles,” Aimiuwu said. “There’s a stigma that if you have any kind of income coming in, you wouldn’t qualify. I thought I wouldn’t qualify.”

“A lot of friends I know from back then, they won’t go for bigger jobs. They’ll purposely go for minimum wage jobs because Section 8 is on the line and food stamps are on the line and insurance is on the line,” she said.

There’s a major problem, right there. Welfare benefits are withdrawn when people work to better themselves, creating a cliff that both parents and children can fall from.

Aimiuwu eventually found her way to i.c. stars, an organization that provided computer tech training, but, more than that, provided the counseling and support she needed to believe she could rise.

“One thing they told us was to think about what we could do for our community. At the time, that shocked me. Because the truth is when you’re homeless, when you have nothing, it feels like your community has failed you. I never even thought about having something to contribute to the community.”

Like Blake, Aimiuwu found she could put her skills to use and she was needed in her community. Being needed by your community and your family, being useful and helpful to others, can fuel a rise that government dependency cannot.

Aimiuwu went from making $12,000 braiding hair to making $58,000 at a tech job. Training with i.c. stars would put her on her first airplane for a business trip to India. In her next role she earned $87,000 and is now earning beyond that with her own business.

“You can’t believe the relief you get when you see the paycheck and it covers rent, it covers food and it has extra. The amount of relief you see is just beautiful,” she said. “For so long you’ve struggled and you’ve struggled and you don’t see the end.”

There is an end to poverty that involves dignity and not doles. Paprocki identified three major solutions members of congress should adopt:

  1. End the benefits cliff.  The archaic U.S. benefits systems force people into impossible choices: provide for their family at a job or reduce work activities and receive greater benefits from government assistance.
  2. Expand tax credits for apprenticeships. The average income of someone after an apprenticeship is $77,000.
  3. Couple work requirements with welfare benefits, similar to the successful bi-partisan reforms of 1996, which increased work and decreased dependence.

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