Utah state Sen. Stuart Reid's effort to end the cycle of poverty by helping children is refreshing and timely. In doing so, he has brought public attention to the fact that our way of helping those in need today may not be working, or may even be part of the problem.
Helping those in need has become an industry organized to deal with symptoms and at the convenience of the professionals ?— "who know best." For almost every human problem — lack of income, jobs, food or shelter, delinquency, teen pregnancy, school drop out, family violence — we have developed a program. And if you ask the professionals, they will tell you they need more resources, better coordination, communication and collaboration — and the new one, "partnerships." Professional administrators have created elaborate data systems to tell lawmakers how efficient they are in running their organizations, instead of how effective they are in helping solve problems.
Philanthropy, and the concern for one's neighbor, was born out of deep values Americans held about caring for each other and is rooted in volunteerism by individuals, religions and nonprofit groups. As our society became more complex during the industrial revolution, we created public institutions to compliment and even supplant private philanthropy. While public institutions started out with a culture of compassion, they have become impersonal, lacking compassion, and more concerned with the efficiency of the organization than providing the help for which they were created. Lost is the caring, compassion and dignity of the individual needing the help. "Perhaps the most serious cost of a service orientation (is) it neglects the poverty of the spirit in ministering to the needs of the flesh" (Cahn & Cahn, The War on Poverty, Yale Law Journal, July 1964).
The challenge in solving the problem of poverty is structural, while maintaining the values we hold — caring for one's neighbor and the dignity of every individual. Forgotten, for the sake of the organization and efficiency, is the need to treat the whole person in the context of family and community. In their haste to solve the immediate problems, agencies deal with the symptoms and ignore the causes, allowing the problems to worsen and become cyclical.
Agencies tend to focus on the pathology of individuals rather than building upon their strengths and the family. Missing in the helping process is the involvement of individuals in finding solutions to their problems. By involving them, professionals convey hope and the belief that individuals have the power to manage their own lives. Social work students have been known to be successful in helping families because of the optimism they have about people succeeding.
The structural change required in the social service system must involve the people who are touched by the problem of poverty. Simply having professionals redesign the system will result in business as usual. The poor may be poor, but they have the ability to solve problems if encouraged to do so. The war on poverty proved that poor people could bring about change as they began to find the power within to manage their destiny. Studies have shown that if solutions to problems are to be found and lasting, they must come from the individuals who are touched and affected by the problem.
In solving the problems of poverty, lawmakers and professionals should make the family the entity to treat, rather than the individual. This would allow for follow-through, accountability and assure the agency deals with the underlying causes of poverty rather than the symptoms.
Let's work towards having healthy families — healthy children will follow.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.