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John Florez: Agencies perpetuate the poverty cycle rather than creating a culture of caring

Published: Saturday, Sept. 29 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Utah House of Representatives at the Capitol Building in Salt Lake City.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

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Does anyone care? Utah has a mounting child poverty rate, and more adults are going hungry. Yet, many of our elected leaders appear not to care. One who does care is state Sen. Stuart Reid. He wants to end child poverty by breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, where 30 percent of Utah welfare families find themselves. For starters, he has sponsored SB37 to monitor state data on intergenerational poverty in Utah.

Utahns have always upheld the value of strong families, children and the belief in caring for each other. However, we seem to be losing our moral compass by only giving lip service to those values. America created policies because of those values., to deal with the suffering that children and families endure during hard times.

In 1935, the Congress created Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC, to help families deal with the economic depression at that time. It was called the "widows" program and supported with the creation of the Children's Bureau. The programs worked in Utah because our elected leaders carried them out with a sense of compassion and empathy.

Now, compassion seems to be missing. Some lawmakers appear callous and lack empathy for the poor, viewing them as free loaders and creating policies that discourage individuals from asking for help. AFDC changed in 1997 when Congress replaced that program with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, which required parents with children to leave the home to find a job. TANF is anti-family and ignores the importance of a caregiver in the home to assure the healthy development of children.

Reid is right in focusing resources on healthy development of children. However, it's not simply a matter of resources, rather changing the culture of mean spiritedness some politicians appear to have.

One of the causes for the perpetuation of intergenerational poverty is the social service industrial complex that is supposed to help the poor. However, often all it does is put them through a bureaucratic set of procedures and does nothing to solve their problem, referring them to another agency to find help on their own. Then they can report on how many clients they have served so efficiently. The result is the poor are left disillusioned, without hope and with the loss of dignity for having asked for help.

The poor are left helpless, have no power and are subjected to impersonal treatment through the donor-donee relationship they must endure. As Reid has pointed out, "Too often economic competition creates losers of children."

"Poverty in America is not just a lack of material goods, education and jobs — it is also a sense of helplessness, a defeatism, a lack of dignity and self-respect, all of which are externally confirmed in varying degrees," (Cahn and Cahn, The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective). Families who have had to depend upon faceless, impersonal bureaucracies for the basics of life and subjected to indignities have lost the most important things that sustain us as human beings — hope, faith and love.

"This is the most serious cost of service: it neglects the poverty of the spirit in ministering to the needs of the flesh ... " (Cahn and Cahn). And that may be the biggest problem that has helped create intergenerational poverty.

Until policymakers create a culture of caring, treat the poor with dignity and are more concerned with people instead of the organization, the cycle of poverty will continue. Reid has raised the level of consciousness for all of us to work to have our public institutions fulfill the aspirations of making our society one that works for the common good with our common values.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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