The war on poverty was lost because only the professionals fought it. Until the civilians — the poor — get involved, the war and its costs will continue. Poverty has become full employment for professionals.
In 1964, our nation declared a war on poverty that called for “maximum feasible participation of the poor.” The poor were supposed to get involved in helping to find solutions for their problems as a way of developing their own power to solve problems.
Social service agencies only reinforced the sense of dependency among the poor as they were seen as brokers that determined what services, as well as how the services would be delivered, to the poor. The challenge was seen as wresting the resources from the service agencies (the professionals, the brokers) and directing resources to local communities where the poor could help determine their own destiny.
As those in power saw where the poor began to question how resources were not meeting their intended purposes, they began criticizing the poor for speaking out and reverted to the established donor-donee relationship with them — thus reinforcing the sense of dependency and sense of hopelessness that such a relationship creates.
What the short life of the war on poverty did was to give some of the poor the opportunity to realize they had the power and talent within them to better their lives and their communities.
The Salt Lake Community Action Program (CAP), part of the war on poverty, brought change, not only among the poor, but in the community as well. People in the program exposed the inefficiencies and lousy service within the social service system endemic to monopolies — they are the “only show in town”— with a captive customer base so there is no need to change, just do more of the same.
When the service fails, it’s the fault of the customer. That shows how the social service industry continues to grow, because its customers have no power to make change, and there is no lobby for the poor.
The Salt Lake CAP demonstrated that, given the opportunity, the poor could improve their lives and their communities as well. The CAP program hired the poor from their neighborhoods and created neighborhood councils the poor controlled.
Once they had a chance to have a sense of accomplishment in helping others and their communities, many went on to improve their lives. They cleaned up their neighborhoods, helped start community centers, a children’s day care center, school lunches, youth programs, health centers and changed welfare policies, to name a few.
Many of the poor hired in the program went on to seek better jobs and further education and later returned to serve their communities. They succeeded because they understood and had compassion for the less fortunate. The CAP program demonstrated the value of hiring the poor in programs that are supposed to help them. They not only improved their lives, but also were able to reach the poor because of their own life struggles.
The current social service system is an outdated and a wasteful system. Other professions have found it productive to hire paraprofessionals to meet customer needs. Policy makers should restructure the current system so that is responsive to the needs of the poor in a compassionate way by hiring the poor in reaching and helping those in need.
Involving and hiring the poor helps them improve their lives and unleashes a new wave of workers that is less costly and more effective in the elimination of poverty.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company