The problem of poverty has only gotten worse in the last century. The welfare system is broken. And, while most of us care about other people, we don't know how to help. We donate money to groups and encourage governmental support hoping that it will help. But it hasn't. So why do we keep doing it?
Not only does the current welfare system create dependence in the recipients, it creates dependence of us all. We have become dependent on the government to take care of the needy rather than private citizens taking responsibility for helping those who need a hand up.
And the system has become too big for it to adequately serve those who most need and deserve help. The system of social services workers trying to help hundreds of cases each makes it impossible to even know their clients well enough to know what they really need or how best to help them.
Then there is the one-size-fits-all approach that goes through a check list, assigns food stamps and a stipend without acknowledging the need for other kinds of support. After just a few years of this kind of work a social worker quickly burns out and is even less effective.
Even the programs that require clients to find a job don't support that client in maintaining employment. They get a low paying job and their welfare is cut off. There is little or no transition for them. Often they need more than just any job. They may need job training, child care, family enrichment, motivation for changing their lives, self-respect, self-confidence, mental health or substance abuse treatment. The chronically poor need a holistic treatment program to turn their lives around. For the chronically poor they need to address "body, mind, and spirit." to make lasting change. A one-size-fits-all approach will not adequately address their needs.
So, the system is broken. What, then, would succeed? Well, that depends on how you define success. There is no way that every needy person in the country could be "helped" if you define that as everyone having food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. That wouldn't solve the problem of poverty in America. No one changes. It just adds to the problem.
There needs to be immediate care in the most urgent of cases, of course. Those not caught up in the cycle of chronic poverty may not need as much support. But the people who have been in the cycle of poverty need more than band-aids. They need extensive care. They need to change. And that doesn't happen easily and simply. There are a few programs here and there that work to change people's lives for their better future.
These programs are small and and few. There need to be lots more of them. They need to be small in order for the people entering the programs to be adequately diagnosed, as it were. Each person has different needs. Do they have family or community affiliations that could help them build new lives? Are they willing to work at any job offered them? Do they have good work ethics? Are they willing to learn new skills? Do they have realistic dreams and goals? Do they have physical or mental limitations? Do they need childcare? Do they know how to manage money? Do they have a place to live? Do they need life skills education? Are they drug and alcohol free? These are some of the questions that need to be explored with each individual.
All of this and more can be necessary to motivate and support people in establishing a new way of life free from the dependency cycle of the welfare system. Values clarification, decision making, stress management, interpersonal communications, self-esteem building, substance abuse treatment, a graduated level of responsibility for themselves, all play a part in their recovery. They need to develop new habits and get rid of those that keep them from succeeding.
Yes, it is very much like addictions treatment. They have become dependent on the government much like many become dependent on drugs and alcohol. And frequently those addictive substances have played a role in making them and/or keeping them poor. This kind of treatment/system is best done by religious and community organizations in the areas where the people live who need them. The staff needs to get to know the participants well, know their needs and their willingness to change.
And there needs to be the bottom line of "no work means no food". Sounds mean, doesn't it? But if the person is capable of any work it is important for their own success that they earn their way to independence and independence. There needs to be a work component to the program, even if it is "made work." How else will they develop a work ethic?
They may have to clean toilets and mop floors on their way to their new lives. If there is no other means to survive, they will choose to participate fully in the recovery program. And they will change their lives over time. And it will take time. Programs will be at least a year long for most, some will take longer. And as long as they are working their program and following the rules their basic needs would be provided.
So, if you define success by the sheer number of people who get off and stay off of the welfare roles, the smaller holistic programs like this will probably do better than the way the system now is run. This is because the current system only perpetrates the cycle of poverty by enabling people to stay dependent.
The current system gives a little help in one area of their life but it fails to be sustained because the demands from the rest of their life cannot support them to get independent. If you lose your welfare check when you find a low-paying job that doesn't provide enough for you to have childcare, or transportation, or medical care, or education/training for a better job. You will soon be back to where you began, if not worse. And after years in this system the drive to become independent is lost to the sense of helplessness fostered by the system. And that is not success.
The Congress need to begin phasing out federal programs and pushing states to develop ways for individuals and community-based institutions to take over poverty-fighting responsibility in programs like to this. If each church, synagogue, or religious organization in the community worked to support even one family in their effort to become self-sufficient, financially independent, it could make an enormous difference in the community.
And the most successful programs do have a spiritual component. I don't mean religion, but spiritual enrichment. Look at the success of AA and other similar programs developed to include spiritual growth. And this compassionate outreach would be much more healing than simply taking up a collection to donate to the poor. Working directly with those in need has greater meaning and benefit to both the giver and the recipient. It seems like a natural fit.
Controversial? Yep. People resist change and they resist taking personal responsibility for making change. Easier to pay taxes, write a check, or donate used clothes, isn't it? It is uncomfortable to look into the face of those in need, to get to know them as individual human beings.Out of sight - out of mind. Us and Them. Let the government do it.
But compassion isn't always easy or comfortable. And charity that makes folks dependent is not compassion, it is sympathy. The poor don't need our sympathy.
To read more about how could work check out Renewing American Compassion by Marvin Olansky.