John Florez: Take a lesson from faith, community based organizations: The poor need help, not hurdles

Published: Saturday, Nov. 3 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this 2007 file photo, volunteers help serve an Easter dinner at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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"When was the last time you had to ask for help, and how did it make you feel? Think about it for a moment," she said.

That was the assignment our social work professor gave on the first day of class. It was an assignment to help us see how it felt for a person to have to ask for help. It was a soul-searching experience and designed to help us be more understanding of how difficult it is to have to ask for help — especially in our society where independence is highly valued and to ask for help is often seen as a sign of weakness.

If you were to ask your neighbors for help, how might they react? Would they put you through a means test — did you really need it, have you exhausted all your other resources and would they make a moral judgment about you? How would you feel? Well, that's what some of our legislators have done to poor families who have had to ask for public help. They assume the poor are out to rip off the system, have made bad choices and should be put through a gauntlet of procedures, including drug testing and paying it back through "volunteer" work.

What has happened to us? I remember my mother during the Depression always had a pot of beans and warm tortillas waiting for the "tramps" (poor transients) that would come to our door asking for food and willing to chop wood. Her response, "Hungry, eat." There was no means test. It was a generation that understood the struggles of poverty and reached out to those in need without making a moral judgment. It was a period where religious and volunteer organizations came forth to help those in need. People were hungry; they fed them and gave them clothes and housing.

Poverty was rampant then; government created programs to assist the poor, which turned in to bureaucratic mazes and hurdles the poor had to overcome to show they were worthy of help. Mercenaries, rather than volunteers who could relate to the problems of the poor, ran the programs. The essence of caring without judgment by the generation that could relate to poverty during the Depression seems to have been lost, except for the religious and other nonprofit groups run by individuals who relate to the needy with compassion and without judgment.

Studies have shown the most successful programs are those run by individuals who can relate to the needs of the less fortunate. A 1992 Rockefeller Foundation study found the most successful federal Job Training Partnership programs (JTPA) were operated by farmworker, nonprofit organizations such as one in San Jose, Calif. It was an open-entry, open-exist program to prepare welfare mothers to work. It succeeded because of the welcoming approach and expectation it had for the women involved to succeed. The program operated on the needs of the participants, rather than those running the program.

Public agencies seem to be more concerned about processing and efficiency and forget they are supposed to help people through hard times. As a consequence, the cycle of poverty continues and the bureaucracies grow. Religious and community-based organizations should be engaged and supported by public agencies in the delivery of services to the poor. They have the commitment and compassion needed to help the poor succeed.

Lawmakers ought to establish policies that create a culture of compassion that reach out with a helping hand consistent with our values of looking after each other. Let's take a lesson from our faith and community based organizations.

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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