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John Florez: Involve the poor in solving poverty

Published: Saturday, May 18 2013 12:29 a.m. MDT

Has the war on poverty been lost because we hired professional soldiers to fight, but never involved the civilians, the poor, in having a say in their destiny?

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The war on poverty was lost because we hired professional soldiers to fight, but never involved the civilians, the poor, in having a say in their destiny. Bureaucracies are good at managing problems but are unable to solve them.

Part of the original intent of the war on poverty was to have the "maximum feasible participation of the poor" in developing programs, as well as hiring them and eliminating the "middleman" — the brokers who managed the agencies and decided what programs were good for the poor. The agencies immediately circled the wagons, complaining they were concerned with non-duplication of services. Their solution was more studies, coordination, collaboration, communication, and a system of referrals between agencies where the poor had to figure out where to go, how to get there and how to get the help they needed.

The social service system continues to be a system of monopolies that are in collusion. If they were private businesses, they would be in anti-trust violation. Yet there are no such laws when it comes to protecting the poor. They have no lobby to change the system. The professionals in the system, including their associations, continue to call for more professionals, more money and more programs. In the meantime, they point out, "It's worth it if it saves one person." They all keep data to tell you what they do, but not their results and at what cost.

To continue a system that is demeaning and intimidating ignores our common values: the dignity and worth of every individual. In our society, it is a difficult thing to ask for help. Yet when an individual asks a bureaucracy for help, they are subjected to red tape and a faceless organization, just at a time when the individual is hurting, confused, vulnerable and often low on self-esteem.

Many agency staff have forgotten they are there to help people in need to solve problems. They behave like mercenaries rather than caring individuals. An impersonal bureaucracy only generates dependency and resentment by the individuals they are supposed to serve. Thus begins intergenerational poverty.

Helping each other, especially those in need, has been a value Americans have always practiced along with the dignity of every individual. They are common values that hold any society together. Somehow in our effort to institutionalize caring for the needy, we have lost those values.

To change agency culture, lawmakers ought to see the poor in need of help, rather than simply "feeding at the public trough," and treat them with the same respect as they eagerly help corporations that feed at the public trough. They would then restore our common values. It starts with understanding that people may be poor but have something to give, and giving is the best medicine — believing and having expectations those individuals, with help, can find their own solutions. Furthermore, lawmakers should require the poor to be involved in developing the programs and in hiring them as para-professionals. They have the empathy and commitment to make sure clients in need will actually obtain the service they need and empower them to solve their own problems. "Teach them how to fish!"

To renew the value of caring, lawmakers should expand efforts to support volunteer organizations such as religious, community and service organizations. The people in them help out of empathy and often hire the poor. Those organizations are nonjudgmental and inspire hope by having expectations to succeed. They empower the poor to solve their own problems.

Each of us has a responsibility to fight for the values that will solve the cycle of poverty. Government can't solve our problems alone.

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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