We all understand poverty is a problem, one that can seem intractable and inevitable. But what if the way we have approached poverty has been wrong for years, for generations even?
There's evidence it might be.
The traditional model of the American social service industry has long been a one-size-fits-all approach that treats the symptoms of poverty — transportation, child care, food insecurity — but does nothing to address the cause. The result traps the poor in a never-ending cycle of dependency and stigma, creating repeat customers.
That scathing indictment comes not from a critic of the war on poverty but from one of its most passionate advocates.
Heather Reynolds, former director of Catholic Charities in Fort Worth (CCFW) and now managing director for the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) at the University of Notre Dame, is blunt about the flaws in the traditional approach. Some years ago, Reynolds began conversations with Notre Dame economists Bill Evans and Jim Sullivan, who asked her whether social service agencies were willing to face the hard truth that much of what they were doing was not working. She was.
There is, she has concluded, a twofold problem to the traditional approach.
The first involves misconceptions about who the poor are and how we define poverty itself. The standard poor person, Reynolds asserts, is "not the homeless person" or the out-of-work person who isn't even looking for a job. Instead, "it is the working poor," who are "just one unexpected expense away from disaster because they don't have enough in savings," she said.
The question is how such people can progress out of poverty. Reynolds uses a set of criteria or markers to identify their progress or lack thereof. These include making a living-wage income, eliminating harmful debt, possessing minimally adequate savings, and moving off government assistance.
The second problem has to do with a failure to examine the evidence of what actually works in lifting people out of poverty. On the left, there is a tendency to equate compassion with increased government programs, while on the right, there is skepticism about the efficacy of any such program and a tendency to relegate poverty alleviation to the realm of personal responsibility. Meanwhile, on all sides, there is a tendency to focus on symptoms rather than causes and to measure effectiveness in terms of how much good we do for the poor rather than on whether we are in fact ending poverty.
What Reynolds pioneered in Fort Worth was an innovative contextual case management program. Case management has of course been a staple of social services for some time. But Reynolds' approach focuses on the complexity of poverty, the entire situation — not just the immediate need — of people who come to an agency for help. Its focus is on long-term relationships rather than a transactional supply of assistance. The Padua Program, CCFW's premier case management program, has been a huge success. After one year, full-time employment has increased by a fourth; after two years, income increases by a third; and participants demonstrate evidence of smarter borrowing and budgeting. A similar intensive case study program in partnership with community colleges has yielded similarly impressive results for retention, degree completion and job earnings.
Make no mistake — such programs are not cheap, and they are labor intensive. But with the vast amount of funding, both public and private, that has for decades been poured into the war on poverty, resources need to be deployed for programs that have proved effective.
In her bracing autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day, founder of The Catholic Worker Movement who died 40 years ago, describes how her conversion to Christianity was bound up with her calling to live among the poor, to encounter Christ in the face of the poor. For her, this was a corrective both to the romanticizing of the poor and those who serve them and to the tendencies on both the right and the left to treat the poor as abstractions. The question is whether we can combine attention to the faces and lived experiences of the poor with an attention to what research tells us what actually works to move people out of poverty. Answering yes to this question will bring genuine hope for the poor.
Thomas S. Hibbs is president of the University of Dallas.