“Poverty” in America, Part IV: Real Solutions

As long as freedom of choice exists, “poverty” in America cannot be eradicated completely. “Income inequality” is a popular buzz-phrase of late; but many adherents fail to see a critical point. “Income inequality” will and should go away only when 1) Everyone is of equal skill, talent, experience, training, intellect, mental and physical strength and motivation, or 2) There is no such thing as income; and we’re all either dead or protoplasmic fuel for robots.

It’s not the government’s role to “prevent” income inequality, since it can neither guarantee nor enforce that everyone’s motivation, skill, interests and intellect will more closely match. We are not clones! Therefore we are not equal! About the only useful governmental influence in that regard is education; but in other areas, the more power grabbed by government to influence societal structure, the more corrupt the government and the more bankrupt the society.

Put another way, the governmental vision of income equality is realized when everyone is poor. The USSR was a fine example on a huge scale. Soviet communism illustrated vividly that 1) governmental corruption doesn’t go away (and indeed gets worse with greater central power) when it outwardly advocates a Utopian vision of enforced “equality”, and 2) a lot of highly educated Soviets ended up in servitude to militarily/socially/environmentally destructive and corrupt governmental programs, sent to gulags, or starving on rations in cold apartments. The violence and crime shifted from the people to the government too (Stalin’s purges, among others).

Alas, human nature is what it is, and inequality is inevitable, as long as we live in a world of imperfect people. The challenge is how to help those in need to help themselves, and to what extent the most efficient and cost-effective ways to do so lie in the relative weight of a) governmental bureaucracy and its intrinsic red tape, or b) in private (including church) charity, which tends to be less well-funded by citizenry in downtrodden economic times, and whihc occasionally can be pockmarked with scandal and red tape of its own.

Those two arenas can minimize “poverty” in a free, capitalistic democracy, even f they cannot truly eliminate it. Yes, solutions are both public and private in nature.

PUBLIC

There’s no getting around the bloated inefficiencies of red tape and bureaucracy; this is why I’ve argued that government should not play the biggest role in addressing “poverty”. This category is smaller for a reason: it should be. I’ve already discussed the folly of government taxation as a poverty cure–namely, that it doesn’t work! Countless trillions have been collected in taxes over the years by governments at all scales, especially Federal, and despite that, economic suffering still exists all across the land. Why would doing still more of the same failed solution solve the problem? In short, it won’t.

Further, we can look to the U. S. Constitution, which is the beginning, middle and end–the ultimate word–on the function of American government. There is no explicit constitutional mandate to governmental poverty aid. The only potential exception, and it is interpretive instead of literal, is with the wording “promote the general Welfare” in the Preamble. That might include what we now know as public assistance or “Welfare” in some form. Again, it’s not specified. I have no problem personally interpreting this as license for public aid to the poor, but certainly can respect and understand those who may not interpret “Welfare” literally as “welfare” as we know it.

If we assume that government anti-poverty programs are constitutional (meaning,of the Constitution), how can government play the most efficient and effective role? Do we give a man a fish, or teach him to fish? You can see where I’m going here, I hope.

I know, from first-hand eyewitness experience, that “welfare” and “entitlement” aid, in its various forms and on individual levels, often gets siphoned into drugs, sex, stolen goods, booze, and other wasteful and destructive personal practices that worsen poverty instead of alleviating it. That’s the folly of giving a man the fish.

Here’s teaching the man to fish. Everyone on public assistance, as their particular situational category allows, should be required to do something to earn the handout.

Unemployment programs in most states already require documentation of the effort to search for a job, and a time limit. Student-loan and grant programs require proof of schooling, in most instances. This is good; and I support such requirements–though in many instances they still have loopholes of abuse that can and should be closed. Such stipulations for aid generally set a good example for governmental financial help, specific abuses aside. They act as bridges to permanent, gainful employment if the participant makes the right choices and applies himself. Many other public-aid programs have time-limits, but don’t require any giving back on the part of the recipient.

That needs to change. John Kennedy reminded us, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Make every public-aid program more of a jobs or “workfare” pursuit that accomplishes a need. This is not a new, nor revolutionary, nor foreign idea, even though civilized, English-speaking countries including Australia use it. In fact, civil-rights activist James C. Evers introduced the term “workfare” in the late 1960s.

Any and every able-bodied person can do such work–i.e., mowing public grass, picking up highway litter, maintenance and construction on Federal, state, county or municipal lands, “habitat” style home renovation/building, etc. It doesn’t necessarily require new bureaucracies, either; for example, highway work could be managed by an existing highway agency or street and sanitation department. It just takes some leaders with a vision to solve a “poverty” problem common in a locality, area or region through creative uses of work-for-benefits.

The infrastructure of this nation keeps falling into an ever more dangerous state of decay; and the time hasn’t been better since the Depression for civilian work to improve it. Even many “disabled” still can perform beneficial functions, such as a guy with amputated legs performing accounting, filing, calling, or some other work that doesn’t require the missing physical capability. [Of course, we must be humane about this; the truly incapacitated, for which work just isn’t possible, can be medically certified for benefits accordingly. ]

Jobs under such programs don’t need to be all manual labor; they can assume many forms to match abilities and skills (or potential skills) with actual local or regional needs. In doing so, there are opportunities not only for training toward employable abilities, but in many cases, acquiring an incomplete or heretofore absent work ethic that will help to maintain employment. Recipients of any form of welfare then would choose to work for it or not; otherwise they are on their own, by their own choosing, and the public record will state such. The payments for “workfare” would be enough to keep one alive and housed according to local minimum costs (including public housing), but not enough to buy luxuries, illegal substances, or gamble away without serious personal consequences.

Such ideas are nothing new; indeed they are strong analogs to the old FDR era Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps. However, since government gets smaller, generally more efficient and more nimble the closer it is to the local people, such programs are better adopted at the local, county and sometimes state scales than nationally. Jobs would be decided locally where the needs are best-known. Employers can look to successful recipients of such aid as legitimate candidates for jobs that require many of the same skills acquired and/or honed through the “workfare” process. Some form of relatively minimalist housing could be provided as well, akin to some of the better-run homeless shelters, but with a measure of privacy for individuals.

PRIVATE

The most direct, fulfilling, effective and personal solution to “poverty” in America is private donation. There are too many charities out there to name that have shown themselves to work and work well; and their main constraint in performing better is lack of more giving from you and me. Those who are relatively unencumbered by large bureaucracies and red tape of their own are the best; as more money goes directly to street-level work.

To the extent that your own income, taxes and spending habits enable, we all can do, and should be doing, personal donations aimed at helping folks to help themselves. If your spending habits are loose, consider tightening them for many reasons, including the ability to: 1) give more to the less fortunate, and 2) to prevent your own future “poverty” by saving against unforeseen circumstances. Thrift is a time-honored value, one far too many people fail to practice in the face of personal materialism in a heavily commercialistic culture. I’m not advocating that you don’t ever buy a new PC or TV, or have some fun…far from it! The concept is simple: just spend less than you make, and set some aside for others less gifted. Ask yourself often: “Do I need this or just want it?” In the long run, you’ll be glad you did!

As for personal charity, I want to make this crystal clear–I am not talking about donation of money straight to individuals in most cases, such as some folks may be tempted to do on the streetcorner with the haggard beggars holding desperately worded cardboard signs. That can (and most often is) squandered on the same habits that caused the state of despair to begin with. All that does is foster dependency and drag the person deeper into the catacombs of his dire circumstance. Sad as it may be to imagine, money given directly to parents to help their kids easily might go instead to the parents’ addictions and problems, instead of helping the kids. In many such cases, you make the problems worse by giving directly to individuals in dire straits. I’ve seen these circumstances, and many more, from living in the inner city for 18 years, having the irreplaceable understanding that comes from direct and first-hand experience with the condition of American “poverty”.

Instead, the aim ultimately is to give folks opportunities and tools to improve their condition. As the old but valid saying goes, teach a man to fish instead of merely giving him a fish. Preferably we do this in an organized and systematic way, using reputable charitable organizations that are known to provide great services. If assorted levels of governments (above) and individuals are doing this, the collective differences can be enormous.

Fortunately, in this day of the Internet, we have access to a lot of information on charities–both real and bogus. Read about them online, but also, talk to people you know who have given to such charities and ask them of their experiences. Many folks are loathe to publicly flaunt their charitable giving (including me), because the reasons for authentic giving do not involve patently selfish motives such as showing off, taking credit, being recognized, or competing with others. Privately, however, folks who you know to be charitable will be glad to direct you to the charities they use for helping the poor, charities they know are reputable and relatively streamlined of inefficiencies in bureaucracy and physical overhead. Ask.

What are some of the best charities? Ultimately this is a personal decision with which you have to become comfortable. Some donors find one or two they trust and use for life. Others scatter their generosity around. Both approaches are fine, as you’re still giving and helping. Ask trusted friends, relatives and/or co-workers who may have similar social, religious and charitable interests.

Of course, there are the well-known areas of giving of time, money and stuff, such as operations that provide food and housing. These can be general-service, such as the local homeless shelter or food bank–or targeted, such as shelters for battered women (many of whom are truly destitute). Such outlets aren’t hard to contact if you try, and present in the overwhelming majority of cities and medium-sized towns in this nation.

Churches are well-known and major suppliers of aid to the unfortunate in this country; and you don’t have to be a member, or even religious, to participate. Churches and faith-based organizations will accept out-of-blue donations as well as regular contributions; and most will honor your request to either keep the donation(s) anonymous and/or not proselytize to you, if you stipulate such from the start. Most churches who are organized enough to do such work gladly will accept materials and money, and will agree to target it toward local services if you specify that. Simply look up the church(es) of your comfort level, call the pastor, ask about their specific local efforts and needs for helping the poor. Many larger churches also provide information regarding their domestic mission work online. Donations of money and materials (that can be valued) are tax-deductible. Donations of time and effort are priceless.

Education is a long-established counterweight to economic distress. The greatest way out of poverty, and the greatest insurance policy against future poverty, is education! Individual initiative to educate oneself is the biggest force against personal poverty. It doesn’t hurt to encourage such an ethic through support for accredited schooling for those who are less well financially. Some of my favorite categories of charities that help the less fortunate in America include schools (public or private) that serve children in poor areas, such as inner cities, depressed rural areas, and of course tribal lands. Monetary donations to many private schools that explicitly serve relatively poor areas, such as mission schools on Indian reservations, inner-city parochial schools, etc., are Section 501(c)(3) nonprofits who will be glad to specify that the donations are used right there, locally, and not funneled up to a huge, inefficient national bureaucracy; and your monetary donation to them is tax-deductible. Most private and public schools in those areas also and gladly accept direct giving of learning materials, whether electronic (computers) or analog (pencils, paper, crayons, kids’ books for libraries, etc.).

Event-driven giving is fine, too. One great target of benevolence could be any of those well-known organizations that aid in the relief of natural or man-made disasters, which render even middle-class folks at least temporarily poor, and those already in “poverty” as downright destitute, at least for the short term. Disasters serve one good purpose in that they are reminders to help those stricken. Be watchful, however, for charity scams–especially e-mails and phone calls posing as legitimate charities right after disasters. Most of those e-mails and calls actually are bogus, performed by weaselly little pencil-necked punks scamming folks from monitor-lit basements worldwide, preying on your generous spirit to lead you to the destructive world of computer viruses, spyware and stolen identities. Instead, seek and check the charities yourself (proactive) instead of falling for pitches (reactive).

Even with all these ideas, we must acknowledge the grim reality that “poverty” will not be eradicated totally. Individuals will make bad choices regarding drugs, alcohol, crime and (lack of) education, and/or fall into hard times through wretched situations imposed upon them. Of those, many will refuse to help themselves. On a collective scale, some charities and churches will do things inefficiently, or even get busted due to corruption. Don’t let cynicism over such incidents, the fear of being scammed, or the sad state of humanity as a whole, discourage your own charitable giving…instead, direct it to organizations of solid repute from trusted people.

If you’re at a loss for where to start, contact me privately and I’ll suggest some worthy targets that most folks of any political or religious persuasion can support–or with more information about your own preferences, some charities you may find particularly worthwhile.

Can one of us ameliorate the problem alone? Of course not. As “poverty” is a collective problem, the solution must be additive as well. Still, each one of us can donate something: whether it’s money, time, effort, ideas, or some combination of them. I haven’t done enough and need to do more. I suspect the same is true for most of us. So…let’s do it. If you are religious, pray over the matter, and ask God to help you to find more and better ways to help the less fortunate. Don’t be surprised if you soon find exactly such ideas…then give thanks for them, for they will be customized from above to your specific abilities (even abilities you may not realize yet that you have). Then get to it!



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