It's a pleasant relief to take a break from some of the issues of the past election-- the rich paying more taxes, the freedom of choice in a marriage partner or an unwanted pregnancy, voter registration ... but one issue was conspicuously absent in the political debates, and now I'd like to hear more about it.
The poor. We heard lots about the rich and the middle class, but scarcely a mention of the poor. I think I understand why. People see the poor as a problem, and if we don't have enough money to help the middle class, how in the world will we have money to enhance the lives of the poor? We think of the poor as needing entitlements, and who needs more entitlements when we can't fund the existing ones?
I propose that conservatives and the liberals start talking about the poor, not as a problem for limited resources, but as a solution. Think back to the pre-World War II days when most women were homemakers. Then the war forced them out of their homes and into the factories while the men went off to fight. This, unwittingly, produced a great deal of wealth, not just for the individual women joining the workforce, but for the nation as a community. Can you imagine how much weaker we'd be as a country if women didn't have careers in the workforce? Work produces wealth!
The poor are the last big block of people who are either unemployed or underemployed. We should start thinking of them as a resource, a potential asset, not a liability looking for entitlements.
Lest you think I'm a "naive turkey," I'd like to mention that I've spent 45 years of my career working with the poor -- first as a parish priest, then growing Project for Pride in Living (PPL) for 25 years, and now with MicroGrants. I have my memories of horror stories where the poor seemed less of value, but more of laziness. Once a "poor person" was told that PPL had all kinds of resources for her -- bus passes, help with climbing the housing ladder and job training, but she had to throw herself into it. It was a not a "handout" program, but a "hand up." Was she ready? The lady said something like, "Yeah, I'll do it, but I wanna be upfront with ya. I ain't going outside in no winter time." While I found this somewhat comical, I also found it pathetic but rare. The vast number of poor we worked with were willing, talented and ready to work.
In a New York Times Magazine article in August, President Obama was quoted (from "Dreams of My Father") as saying that he observed in Roseland, Ill., "lost congregations of teenage boys, teenage girls feeding potato chips to crying toddlers, discarded wrappings tumbling down the block." Then, from a speech in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., the magazine quoted Obama: "When I'm president, the first part of my plan to combat urban poverty will be to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 cities across the country." As president, the article went on to say, "Obama has followed a very different path ... more like the antipoverty path of a traditional Great Society Democratic approach: his administration has spent billions of dollars on direct aid to poor people ..."
That strategy may have been good for stimulating the economy, but it did not measurably help the poor. The direct aid may have just enabled them to buy more "potato chips for the crying toddlers." Food stamps and safety nets have their merits, but they won't get jobs, pay the rent or tuition, or promote healthy diets. The poor need to get off the couch, turn off the TV, plan and adopt the ancient habits that get them to a self-sufficient lifestyle.
My solution (and Obama's first solution) is to spend the billions of dollars on community centers like the one in Roseland, Ill. In the Twin Cities, that means investing more money in programs run by PPL, Twin Cities Rise, Summit Academy OIC and dozens of other nonprofits that help the poor become job-ready for our business sector. As our economy continues to grow, we need good, productive workers.
We may also need to break into the cycle of poverty through longer-term investments in teaching the poor to delay having babies until they can support them or in early childhood learning, but I'll leave that case to be argued by other advocates.
Entitlements seem to be anathema to the right, left and center. But job-training programs are politically acceptable to right, left and center. The private nonprofit sector has proven that they work, but philanthropy can't do it alone. Now it's time for the government to put its muscle behind them.
As our legislators discuss the fiscal cliff, entitlements and jobs, let's urge them to consider the poor as people of potential, ready to work, with a little prodding and coaching from those who have made it.
Change the paradigm and think of the poor as locked in a cocoon, ready to develop into a productive creator of wealth.
Joe Selvaggio is executive director of MicroGrants and founder of PPL and the One Percent Club.