“The way I see it is the money spent has all been a symbolic distraction,” Richman says. “At the same time a lot of money is spent on the poor, most of which goes to middle-class bureaucrats, they don’t do the real things that would lift low-income people out of their situation. They don’t remove the countless barriers the government places in the way.”
The way to alleviate America’s poverty problem is not through welfare programs, conservatives like Richman say, but through a free market where licensing and regulations are minimal. If there were no minimum wage, workers would be more motivated to gain skills and education that would result in better pay, critics of the war on poverty say. If there were fewer licensing regulations and no taxes, people could independently create their own businesses and have more money to contribute to charity, critics say.
“Economic growth is the best recipe for getting people out of poverty, but the war on poverty imposed a limit on the ability of people to get out of poverty,” says William Shughart, research director and senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a nonprofit public policy research and educational organization that studies political economy. “The war on poverty pays people to be poor and provides incentives which are counterproductive to the ultimate goal of lifting people out of poverty. The best way to do that is to allow markets to work and allow people to capture the returns of their own efforts.”
However, others say a poor economy is the very thing threatening to raise the poverty rate in America. The safety net of government programs is one thing that helps to offset a growing income disparity that distributes 20 percent of the country’s income to the top 1 percent, says Eric Stegman, manager of the Half in Ten campaign at the Center for American Progress, a progressive political issues think tank based in Washington, D.C. Half in Ten, which was launched in 2007, aims to build public and political will to cut the poverty rate in half in 10 years.
“When we cut programs like Head Start, we’re not cutting one area of early education, we’re cutting support that helps families find jobs and maintain jobs,” Stegman says. “People don’t understand there are programs like Head Start that suffered serious cuts that provide not only early education, but nutrition, child care and things like transportation.”
In 2012, government programs helped lift out of poverty 44 percent of people who would have been below the poverty line without assistance, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. But proponents of those programs agree the government’s safety net for families and children has weakened. With the poverty rate of children under age 18 at 21.8 percent, compared to 13.7 percent for people ages 18-64 and 9.1 percent for people over 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, programs affecting children are of particular concern.
“The impact of poverty is very real,” says Sharon Parrott, vice president for Budget Policy and Economic Opportunity at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “There is a lot that can be done to promote real opportunity so people have the tools to fulfill their full potential.”
In the trenches
As the teachers and employees at the Shriver Building in Salt Lake go to and from work every day, wiping noses, brushing teeth and singing the alphabet song, they are well aware of Head Start’s critics. They know their program isn't perfect and that someday, their funding could be revoked.
With her office one floor up from the Head Start classroom, the thought is never far from Joni Clark’s mind.
“We’re one of the largest agencies, but we don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel to be able to increase services to serve our kids on our wait list any time soon,” says Clark, chief development officer of the Salt Lake Community Action Program that runs this Head Start program.
She tells the story of a time one teacher noticed a student limping when he walked, so the teacher called him over to see what was wrong. She found his shoes were two different sizes, and he wore medical gloves on his feet instead of socks. Clark thinks about that student getting new, warm shoes and socks, and she wishes she could help all of the kids who are poor who can't come to preschool.
As she watches the students sit in a circle, wiggling and singing the alphabet song, she realizes there are a lot of arguments about the best way to alleviate poverty and how to pay for it. She knows the problems facing her students in the world are bigger than breakfast and a new pair of shoes.
But, as the snow falls and the skinny boy in the corner warms up to his teacher and joins the rest of the students, one question comes to Clark's mind again and again — "If we weren't here today, where would they be?"
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