The recent release of the Census report on an upsurge of the number of Americans in poverty will almost surely be used to justify a spike in funding for federal anti-poverty programs. Yet after decades of increased spending on failed government anti-poverty programs, why should we expect a different result with the next funding increase?
Since 2008, food stamp rolls have risen by nearly 50 percent to more than 40 million, and the number of welfare recipients rose to 4.4 million, an 18 percent increase. In fact, government expenditure for anti-poverty programs is now at an all-time high, as a recent USA Today article reports.
The fact that a vast increase in anti-poverty funding is not associated with even a minimal decline in the ranks of the impoverished gives some indication that the programs aren’t accomplishing their mission.
Since the mid-1960s, millions of Americans (often multiple generations of families) have languished on the rolls of one or more of 70 entitlement programs that entail no reciprocity or hope of upward mobility. In fact, many of the government’s needs-based programs have posed roadblocks to the two major routes to financial independence: employment and marriage.
In other words, the government’s response of expanding typical handouts to the needy could simply push millions of more families into “the welfare trap.” In fact, the only outlier to this scenario of steadily increasing dependency was the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which entailed states’ efforts to promote work and reduce obstacles to marriage. As a result of the TANF reform, nearly 3 million families were moved off the welfare rolls and into jobs and toward financial independence.
The model of the successful 1996 welfare reform is closely aligned with the strategies of hundreds of effective community-based anti-poverty initiatives throughout the nation, whose success has been chronicled and supported by Bob Woodson and his Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE).
Typically launched on shoestring budgets, the faith-based, neighborhood organizations in CNE’s nationwide network have created programs that have empowered men and women to escape poverty and achieve self-sufficiency. Such programs stress personal responsibility and reciprocity and promote work and marriage. They typically serve individuals who faced far more daunting odds than many of new welfare enrollees have.
Among such community outreach is San Antonio–based Victory Fellowship, which started 40 years ago in a tiny bungalow and has since freed more than 13,500 men and women from drug and alcohol addiction and the degradation of dependency.
Also in this league of results-based, community action is Bob Cote’s Step 13 in Denver. In contrast to what Cote disparagingly calls “heads in beds” outreach to the homeless, Step 13 involves no-nonsense elements of reciprocity and personal responsibility. As a result of his outreach, hundreds of formerly homeless individuals are now productive citizens, responsible spouses, and parents who are gainfully employed and even owners of small businesses.
Many of Woodson’s models of grassroots success have been chronicled in his book The Triumphs of Joseph: How Today’s Community Healers Are Reviving Our Streets and Neighborhoods. Among those is Toni McIlwain, who rose from living on the streets with her four small children to earn a degree, secure employment, marry, and become a homeowner. Moving beyond this personal victory, McIlwain became an indefatigable neighborhood motivator. As a result of her efforts, 35 of the 38 blocks in her Detroit neighborhood were organized with block captains who worked together to reduce crime by 42 percent, push out drug dealers from an area where 30 crack houses had once been identified, and create a vibrant community park.
Conventional governmental strategies to alleviate poverty have failed in the long run, while solutions based on principles of personal responsibility, reciprocity, and opportunity for upward mobility have flourished. This new paradigm holds promise to bring transformation, dignity, and self sufficiency to the lives of those who had once been trapped in poverty.