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John Florez: Bureaucracies deal with symptoms, not causes of poverty

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

A woman waits in line at the Utah Department of Workforce Services, November 19, 2009.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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Some things never change, especially bureaucracies. Over 50 years ago, as a young social worker, I attended a child welfare conference in San Francisco where the keynote speaker said, "The children in California are the best diagnosed children in the nation; no one does a … thing about it, but they're the best diagnosed."

The Utah Department of Workforce Services, or DWS, just released a report on intergenerational poverty saying essentially the same thing. The study was the result of the last Legislature directing DWS to report on the extent of intergenerational poverty in the state. What it revealed is how public agencies collect extensive data in their "data warehouse" to justify their existence. In the report, DWS admits, "Specific strategies have not been identified yet … to impact intergenerational poverty." So what has it been doing since it took over welfare in 1997?

The report shows how public bureaucracies quickly lose their purpose, becoming crystallized and more concerned with process rather than results. The social service industry is a network of "specialty agencies" organized to deal with symptoms rather than underlying causes. Once the symptoms have subsided — e.g., welfare mothers find a job, — the case is closed. In instances where the client can't be helped by the first agency, they are referred to another agency, with the client caught in the referral circle that has no end.

In the meantime, each agency counts the case as having served the client in an efficient manner. There is no one agency taking responsibility for dealing with the underlying problems of families and seeing them resolved. Thus, the family's underlying problems are never resolved and they become cyclical.

In 1935, our nation made a commitment to assure the healthy development of children by passing the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Act, helping the mother stay at home to provide the care children need in their early development. Now it has been replaced with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families policy that focuses on getting the mother out of the home to find a job.

We now may be seeing the consequences of that policy: lack of infant/parent bonding and brain development, teen pregnancy, low birth weight, school failure, latchkey kids, more violent and impulsive behavior and youth with no sense of tomorrow.

State Sen. Stuart Reid's effort to end intergenerational poverty by assuring the healthy development of children is critical. However, don't look to public agencies for solutions, as they will come up with the same old answers — more money, more collaboration, partnerships and more studies to protect the status quo. That will thwart creating innovative strategies with a culture of caring that should focus on helping families resolve the underlying problems that keep them in a poverty cycle. Until one agency is responsible in helping a family resolve its underlying problems, the poor will continue to be intimidated by impersonal and mercenary bureaucracies in a complex society.

We created social institutions to minister to the needs of the less fortunate. However, somehow they have become gatekeepers that discourage people from seeking help and created an intimidating and demeaning environment for people whose only fault is they have suffered the blows life gives to all of us at one time or another. "There but for the grace. ... "

Policy makers should do what successful businesses do: Involve the customer (in this case the poor), listen to their needs — instead of the vested interest groups — and concentrate resources where they can produce results. Next Tuesday, Reid and Utah Voices for Children will be hosting a timely conference to seek solutions to the problem of intergenerational poverty. Let's hope it produces more than the San Francisco conference.

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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