Curbing poverty

Moderated by Rick Badie

Metro Atlanta’s poverty rate is growing worse, notably in the suburbs. There, poverty increased 5.9 percent between 2000 and 2010, outpacing the city’s 1.7 percent gain, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. Today, we present three views on how Georgia and the nation can curb poverty.

Compassion begins with individuals

By Kevin Conboy

In the March 16 Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Rev. Joanna Adams reminded us in her guest column of a wonderful parable from the New Testament in which Jesus Christ answers the question, “Who is my neighbor ?”

The question arose from Jesus’ explanation of the greatest commandments — to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. And thus came the answer in the story of the Good Samaritan: Everyone is your neighbor.

The Rev. Adams speculates that the Good Samaritan may have left the inn where he left the injured traveler and “headed back to Jerusalem, the place where public policies and priorities were set.” The Rev. Adams ties the need to do something about bandits on Jericho Road to “our responsibility as citizens to speak up” on behalf of, among others, “the most vulnerable among us,” including the poor, elderly, disabled and children. “Isn’t good policy … compassion gone public ?”

I was surprised that the story of the Good Samaritan triggered thoughts of government solutions. This parable reminds us, in my view, of our personal obligation as Christians to love and care for our neighbors. Won’t Judgment Day be deeply personal, like an open-book final exam in which the open book will be the life we have led: Did you feed the hungry? Clothe the naked? Visit the imprisoned? Care for the sick?

The question won’t be: Did you lobby your government for programs — and taxes to pay, at least partially, for the services that would do these things? What virtue is there in paying taxes? If you fail to pay your taxes, you go to prison. We Christians look to Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day, not lobbyists, for examples of compassion.

We need sensible safety-net programs like Social Security and Medicare. Our country is too large and varied to rely entirely on individual compassion and private charities to help the most vulnerable. But government should be one of our last options in dealing with social ills, not our first. The Rev. Adams alludes to some of government’s deficiencies, but she is much too kind. Food stamps, for example, were designed for the truly poor, not for graduate students.

In “Who Really Cares,” author Arthur Brooks analyzes American generosity and statistically establishes strong positive correlations between generosity (time, talent and treasure) on the one hand, and four forces in modern American life on the other: strong religious faith and practices; strong family values and relationships; self-reliance and personal entrepreneurialism; and skepticism about the role of government in economic life.

Americans with conservative values are more generous, on average, than Americans with liberal or progressive values. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” President John F. Kennedy did not have lobbying for a larger government in mind. He had in mind Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan: Compassion begins with each of us.

Kevin Conboy is president of the Irish Chamber of Atlanta.

All sectors play role in reducing poverty

By Aneel Karnani

While the United States has experienced economic growth, the benefits of this growth have not been distributed equitably. Inequality, which was already high, has increased even further. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a record 46.2 million people were living below the poverty line last year, a poverty rate of 16 percent. The poverty rate for children was even higher — 21.9 percent. Poverty is an economic, social, political and moral problem.

The central focus of poverty reduction must be employment. The International Labor Organization states, “Nothing is more fundamental to poverty reduction than employment.” It then argues for “decent employment” — work that offers people a good income, security, flexibility, protection and a voice on the job. Employment is not only the key source of income. It also enhances other dimensions of well-being. Reducing poverty through employment requires three major thrusts: Generate employment, increase employability, and make labor markets more efficient.

Free-market advocates often assume economic growth will automatically lead to job creation that in turn will lead to poverty reduction. The problem is that the trickle-down effects of general economic growth are too little, too slow and too uneven.

There is a need to target programs at poverty reduction rather than just wait for the general growth effect to kick in. Though the private sector is primarily responsible for job creation, government and civil society can and should facilitate this process. There is a need to emphasize jobs suited to the poor, which are often in labor-intensive, low-skill sectors of the economy. There is evidence that small- and medium-sized enterprises are the major employment creators and, therefore, hold an important key to employment and poverty reduction.

The second thrust works on the supply side of the labor market by increasing the employability of the poor. It is necessary to increase educational opportunities for the poor, though education alone will not solve unemployment. There is often a mismatch between the curricula adopted by schools and the requirements of the marketplace. There is a need for job training or vocational training, especially for the poor.

Young people are among the country’s greatest assets; youth unemployment is a tremendous waste of opportunity. While the unemployment rate in the U.S. is under 8 percent, the rate of unemployment among people under 25 is about 16 percent. Research has shown that unemployed youths suffer a permanent decrease in their lifetime earning profiles. How well poor youths make the transition from school to work, from childhood to adult life, can determine their, their family’s and, collectively, their community’s chances of escaping poverty. There is a need for special youth employment programs.

All three sectors of society — private business, government and civil society — must play a role in reducing poverty.

Aneel Karnani is a business professor at the University of  Michigan.

Ending poverty takes all of us

By Sid Mohn

I’ve seen a lot of hardship. It’s written on the faces of the nearly 1 million people we serve every year — the hardship of living without a roof, in poor health or hungry. They’re the faces of poverty, and they’re at the center of what seems like an endless debate over how, when — and if — we can offer them the opportunity to lead safe, stable, and healthy lives.

Answering the question of “how” is perhaps the thorniest part. We’re a nation divided, with one side advocating for government intervention to resolve the poverty crisis, and the other demanding the poor stabilize their lives on their own. It’s a question of personal responsibility, the latter side says. I couldn’t agree more.

The dedication to fighting poverty is indeed a matter of personal responsibility for every one of us. We have the responsibility to remember that fulfilling basic needs like housing, safety, health and food isn’t a privilege; it’s a right. We have the responsibility to remember that we’re all in this together and that nobody makes it alone. It takes all of us to end poverty, including the government.

Our representatives are the ones we trust to work in our best interests and help us build the kind of country where the American Dream can thrive. It’s also their job to listen to their constituents and create policies that meet the needs of everyone, including those who live in poverty.

That doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Legislators reach out to organizations like Heartland Alliance, relying on our wealth of experience to guide their decisions. We need to work together to build programs, policies and communities that support people as they reach for a way out of poverty.

As we work to identify routes out of poverty, though, I often see us as a nation thinking in terms of transactions, specifically those between the government and those in poverty. We feed people. We give them a home. We give them financial means. Job done. It’s much more complex than that.

Poverty isn’t a set of symptoms. It’s a complicated and interwoven fabric that traps people. Handing people things that meet their needs isn’t enough. We need to offer real opportunities for people to build their own path out of poverty and connect them to the building blocks of a safe, stable, healthy life: housing, health care, jobs and justice. Each person needs to make a plan unique to his or her needs. That’s why government intervention alone isn’t enough to end poverty. It simply cannot work on such a granular level.

Social service agencies can, though. We know what our communities need to escape poverty, and that’s what we offer. The partnership involving between government, social services, individuals and communities isn’t one of charity. It’s one of the long-term solutions to long-term problems. It takes us all to create them.

Sid Mohn is president of Heartland Alliance, an anti-poverty group in Chicago.

12 comments Add your comment

Mary Elizabeth

March 28th, 2013
9:50 pm

Thomas, I have a feeling I am quite a few years older than you. I remember not only watching JFK’s inaugural address on television, but I remember the spirit of those times and what JFK was trying to communicate to the nation through his words. The deeply ingrained Kennedy advocacy for public service is why JFK had had his brother-in-law, Sargent Shiver, establish and operate and the Peace Corps. Service in government was important to that family – the Kennedy family. We see that through the way in which Rose Kennedy, the mother of JFK and the daughter of John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, a Boston Mayor and politician, raised her nine children – to be dedicated public servants. Robert Kennedy, Attorney General and JFK’s brother, was a fervent advocate for Civil Rights and for helping the poor. Edward Kennedy spent his entire professional life in public service, working tirelessly for a national health law which would secure healthcare for all of America’s citizens. You must understand the full context of JFK’s background, and the time in which he lived, in order to understand what he meant by the words, “. . .Ask what you can do for your country.” I was part of those times when I was a young adult. I believe I know, firsthand, that to which JFK was alluding when he uttered those words, because I experienced those times in which JFK had lived and I remember what motivated him to dedicate his life to public service. I have not simply read about his life or read his words – many years after the fact – and made assumptions about him or his words that I did not actually experience by witnessing firsthand.

I am, also, old enough to have had a father and mother who lived through the Great Depression and who shared with me the roles that President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, had played in helping the poor rise into the Middle Class through government programs and through government jobs. Today, we could hire and utilize many workers in government jobs, by modeling FDR’s programs, to help rebuild our nation’s infrastructure which is getting very tenuous and even dangerous in places. One example of need is that some older bridges have become weakened, over time, through lack of care and attention given to them, and they are becoming dangerous to cross. There are many other public work needs that could, and should, be addressed and that could put many Americans to work, just as FDR had done in the 1930s to lift our economy and to serve the well-being of the nation’s citizens.

I agree with you that too many politicians of both the Right and the Left have failed to pursue the prosecution of those wealthy CEOs who almost destroyed our nation financially through their devious financial maneuvers prior to the Great Recession of 2008. Personal greed has been a national priority within our nation, unfortunately, since the early 1970s, and that greed culminated in the Great Recession of 2008 which might have turned into a greater Depression than the one of the 1930s if intervention had not occurred quickly. Neither JFK, nor FDR, would have condoned the turn in our nation’s priority toward personal greed. They both believed in the value of public service, and in the value of the government to uplift people.

Below are the words of the our nation’s second President, John Adams, which are apt here:

“There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honor, Power, and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real Liberty. And this public Passion must be Superior to all private Passions. Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and be happy to sacrifice their private Pleasures, Passions, and Interests, nay their private Friendships and dearest connections, when they Stand in Competition with the Rights of society. ~John Adams, 1776″

Note: The excerpt of John Adam’s words, above, were taken from the post by “JamVet” at 7:43 pm, this evening, posted on Jay Bookman’s blog.


March 28th, 2013
5:18 pm

@Mary Elizabeth
Your quotes are spot on. I agree completely with them but in proposing that govt create jobs I think you miss a crucial step in between. Simply expanding the civil service is a good way to create bloated govt but not a sustainable way to create jobs. We have only to look at our Latin American neighbors to see the, at best uneven success of govt leading economic growth by expanding the civil service. Once again we go back to the interplay between govt, civil society, and individuals. Govt can create the conditions whereby individuals feel confident enough to start businesses and employ the poor that we all want to see succeed. Govt functions better as a referee of market activity than an active player (ie USSR, Cuba, various Latin American regimes).
And let’s be fair here. It’s not just right wing politicians that are looking the other way. Politicians on the left and right all supported bailing out the banks and they all take money from Goldman Sachs and others for their campaign funds.
And let’s not put too many words in JFK’s mouth, he said “…ask what you can do for your country,” not “serve the country…through the govt.” I would like to add Mr. Conboy’s quote that “Compassion starts with the individual.” Voting for someone who claims to promote the cause of the poor is no substitute for us as individuals walking down the street and befriending those in need. Ideally we should do both but it seems as though that is not the case. Ironically as Mr. Conboy points out, those who voice the most concern for the poor give less than those who sometimes come off as uncaring. It’s going to take the cooperation of individuals, civil society, and govt but govt cannot lead the charge because political power and govt control over the economy are not particularly effective at tailoring solutions so that individuals can “build their own path out of poverty.”