American taxpayers have spent $22 trillion on the “war on poverty.” Despite this massive investment, the poverty rate today is nearly identical to what it was in 1967. But though the poverty rate hasn’t moved an inch, an honest debate exists about the real value of the money spent. Many Americans have been assisted over the past 50 years and many of them would have been worse off without public investment in their general welfare. Indeed, a strong argument has been made that situational poverty has been adequately addressed. On the other hand, our “war on poverty” also can be seen as an abysmal failure if we are talking about intergenerational welfare.
Situational poverty occurs when life deals us a serious blow, such as a death in the family, a divorce or a job lost. The 80-plus federal welfare programs combined with the efforts of state and local government agencies, not to mention the myriad private relief organizations, can address just about every conceivable unfortunate situation a person might face. What none of these programs do is address intergenerational poverty, wherein generation after generation of family members grow up on welfare and stay there as adults repeating the cycle.
Utah is trying to become the shining exception to that rule. From the inspired policy vision of former state Sen. Stuart Reid, and ably shepherded currently by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Jon Pierpont, head of Workforce Services, in partnership with local agencies, public and private, Utah has been focused for several years on the serious matter of breaking the cycle of welfare dependency.
Addressing intergenerational poverty is tricky business. If we are trying to break the cycle of poverty, innovative and nontraditional measures must be employed. We just cannot keep using the same failed approaches. To stop intergenerational poverty, we must focus on rising generations — the children of these families trapped in poverty. With situational poverty, parents need and receive direct help with their temporary circumstances. With intergenerational poverty, the adults in the room are either very often the problem or live with circumstances that don’t allow them to be the solution. The only way to effectively break these cycles of dependency is to focus on the children and, frankly, until now, many conservative policymakers have been reluctant in principle to bypass parents.
But conservative Utah is different. It’s good that Utah has decided to lead the way out of intergenerational poverty and it is one of the big reasons I started Next Generation Freedom Fund, a new state-based public policy group, with my colleague, Derek Miller, president and CEO of World Trade Center Utah. Welfare reform in Utah will only happen if conservatives are brought in and lead the way. We saw this positive result on the issue of immigration when, in 2010 and 2011, influential and articulate conservative voices in the state not only ensured legislative victory but helped to craft the needed vision and sound policy to get the job done right.
The Utah way on welfare reform will require a new vision and approach. If we continue to view poverty as “their” problem and separate the haves from the have nots — basically objectifying the poor — we will continue to treat poverty impersonally and, thus, ineffectively. As House Speaker Paul Ryan said recently, “The poor are us.” We need to shift our poverty paradigm. We need to begin to see poverty from a place of human dignity, not mere economics. When we look into the eyes of our struggling neighbors we need to see ourselves. Instead of seeing the poor in isolation, as an independent problem in need of an impersonal solution, we need to see the poor as an extension of our own human experience. We need to dump the idea of wealth and poverty as eternal adversaries and embrace the complementarity, interconnectedness and interdependence between the two.
With all due respect to liberals who ironically have championed many impersonal approaches to poverty in the name of personal compassion, and in defiance of narrow-minded and ill-tempered conservative partisans, Next Generation Freedom Fund will focus its substantial conservative voice and political influence on public policies to break the cycles of poverty among rising generations. This effort begins by tackling intergenerational poverty and ends with defining, shaping and settling the political divisiveness surrounding an effective public safety net.
Liberal voices alone in Utah cannot get the job done. It requires the sound thinking, political influence and partnership of trusted conservative voices. It requires that we set aside petty differences, drop ideologies and partisanship, and unite behind the human qualities and characteristics that make Utah exceptional.
Paul Mero is president and CEO of Next Generation Freedom Fund.