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John Florez: There are solutions to intergenerational poverty

Published: Saturday, April 5 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

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Intergenerational poverty is comprised of families with multiple problems, with multiple agencies that perpetuate them. They are families whose members are “treated” according to their individual symptoms by specialty agencies that make up the “social industrial complex.”

The “multi-problem families” are those families that have multiple problems — low income, physical or mental health issues, unemployment, domestic violence, adult or juvenile crime, limited education and skills, and child neglect. For each problem there is an agency and a professional assigned, based on a diagnostic label, to work with that individual family member. So, at anytime, there may be four or more professionals helping a single family, without collaborating with each other, and concerned with protecting their turf. As soon as the symptoms subside for the applicable member, the agency closes the case. However, frequently the cause of the problem continues, becomes chronic, and later intergenerational.

With multiple agencies providing different and often conflicting services and demands, they often discourage family members, while at the same time teaching them to survive by “manipulating the system.” That often creates a sense of futility and hopelessness within the family. Thus, learning how to cope with problems is passed on to the next generation. Intergenerational poverty may well be the result of professionals more concerned with following policy and protecting their turf. Each agency knows the problems, yet there is no accountability as to what happens to families. It’s as though a conspiracy is created where agencies are more concerned with getting along at the expense of families and taxpayers. Since the agencies are public, ultimately only the Legislature and administration that oversee the agencies have the power to hold them accountable.

Some successful efforts to help solve the problem of multi-problem families have existed for over 50 years. One consisted of a county government that created a central reporting system where the family became the unit to treat. The reporting system listed the names of all individuals in the family and all agencies they were involved with — social, health, correctional, police and private agencies. When an individual was picked up for disorderly behavior, for example, and referred to a designated agency, a single caseworker from that agency became the “general practitioner” for the family. The worker then requested and received a faxed report the same day listing the name of the family, its members and what other agencies where involved. Caseworkers from other agencies then terminated their direct involvement and would receive periodic reports from the lead agency regarding eligibility for services, i.e. food stamps, cash payments, mental health, etc. Thus, only one worker managed the family as a unit. The county system allowed for the integration of services designed to treat the dynamics of family functioning. Duplication and manipulation of resources was reduced, as was the perpetuation of poverty.

Intergenerational poverty is a family and community problem and should be treated as such. The current “social industrial complex” has created bureaucracies designed to treat the symptoms of poverty for the convenience of the professionals, not the customer they are supposed to serve. As long as the policymakers listen to the professionals in the system, the status quo will prevail, including the perpetuation of intergenerational poverty. In the meantime, the professionals will continue to study, write reports, and nothing will change.

There are solutions to intergenerational poverty. As with any government entity in our system of government, nothing will change until the citizens demand it.

Utah native John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee, as Utah industrial commissioner and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and on the Commission on Hispanic Education. Email: jdflorez@comcast

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