The purpose of the War on Poverty in 1964 was to have the “maximum feasible participation of the poor” involved in planning, employment and implementation of the program. Its intent was supposed to eliminate the middleman in the delivery of services to the poor. However, soon after the program started, the professionals saw it as a threat and took it over, leaving the poor out. The war may be over, but today poverty is a thriving industry.
Former President Lyndon Johnson started the War on Poverty — the Office of Economic Opportunity — to coordinate the federal resources, and appointed Sargent Shriver with the responsibility to coordinate the federal effort. The problem was Shriver never was given the power to coordinate the various departments.
While the War on Poverty ended, the poverty industry continues to grow in Utah even more today, and the agencies that are supposed to help the poor still decide how the services are to be delivered. Furthermore, coordination is a myth because the governor seems to have never given anyone the authority to make sure the programs designed to help the poor do so. As a consequence, there seems to be no coordination among agencies that appear more concerned about their turf than saving our tax dollars. The professionals running the programs keep telling lawmakers they believe the best thing is to make sure there is coordination, collaboration and non-duplication of services. In the meantime, that creates a monopoly that lacks accountability.
The latest example of a mushrooming poverty industry in Utah is the homeless. In 1986, the Legislature created the Utah Homeless Coordinating Committee to coordinate and provide oversight and approve allocation of funding for homeless services. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox chairs the committee. And like the War on Poverty, there seems to be no coordination and assurance tax money is being spent to help the homeless. While the state has the responsibility to help the homeless, much of the burden has been left to local elected officials who do not have the luxury of avoiding the problem. Like the late mayor of New York City, John Lindsay, said no one expects to reach the governor, yet everyone expects to see the mayor.
For the last decade, local leaders such as Salt Lake City’s have had to deal with the public health and safety problems created by the mass of homelessness in the Rio Grande area. Like leaders who lack the confidence to act, they have let the problem grow. Only in 2014 was a commission appointed to study the problem and make recommendations as to new sites for shelters, while allowing the myriad state and local agencies to provide services as they see fit. Volunteer groups do what they can. Now, two years later, the commission reported its findings, yet did not recommend any sites. Nothing seems to have changed; people living in the streets, money wasted on studies, and professionals offering the same solutions.
The initial purpose of the War on Poverty still holds true: eliminate the middlemen — the professionals who know what is best for the poor, who keep doing the same and asking for more money. The problem is that policymakers keep turning to the professionals, who are more concerned about keeping the status quo, for answers. The problem of solving poverty may be due to elected officials who lack the confidence to make decisions. What they do, instead, is refer problems for further study, create commissions and wait for the ultimate answer.
Until we elect leaders who will act boldly, poverty will remain a growth industry.
Utahn John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee and as Utah industrial commissioner. His Bush 41 White House appointments included deputy assistant secretary of labor and Commission on Hispanic Education member. [email protected].