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The spirit of Thanksgiving and Christmas inspire us to share our bounty with those in need. The human soul longs to help a hungry child, a sick friend, or a homeless person.

“For ye have the poor always with you ...” Matthew 26:11

The spirit of Thanksgiving and Christmas inspire us to share our bounty with those in need. The human soul longs to help a hungry child, a sick friend or a homeless person. And Utahns take a back seat to no one in service and volunteering.

But beyond needing holiday gifts of food, clothing and toys, too many of our brothers and sisters are stuck in a cycle of perpetual poverty. In Utah, 60,000 children and 40,000 adults live in what is referred to as intergenerational poverty. This cycle is highly intractable.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson started the War on Poverty. His hope was to overcome poverty’s root causes and help people become self-sustaining, thereby avoiding massive spending on social services. After 50 years, a Heritage Foundationreport on the War on Poverty concluded that “in fiscal year 2013, the federal government ran over 80 means-tested welfare programs that provided cash, food, housing, medical care and targeted social services to poor and low-income Americans.” The poverty rate now is the same as in 1967, which “is perplexing because anti-poverty or welfare spending during that period has simply exploded.” So far, the War on Poverty has cost an unimaginable $22 trillion.

The War on Poverty has not delivered on Johnson’s well-intentioned dream of overcoming deep-seated poverty. One reason is that no one can change another person; such change must be made by the individual. Outsiders can provide motivation, encouragement, training and resources such as food, rent, job training and education. Until a person and a family decide to become self-reliant, learn how to become independent and work very hard to achieve it, no other force or influence will succeed.

People who live with persistent poverty think about life differently. They may never have conceived of a better life, and they may not understand how to extricate themselves from lifelong patterns that mire them. Real cultural change must accompany long-term progress.

No one would argue that many victims of long-term poverty have physical, mental, emotional or other limitations that legitimately inhibit or bar them from achieving upward mobility through education or progress in a job, etc. It is society’s duty to assist these people with their basic needs.

Delivering solutions through one-size-fits-all government programs can prove very difficult and sometimes impossible. People make decisions as individuals based on their very different situations, values, needs and inclinations. Participants all meet the same general qualification criteria for the program, but they act differently, respond to different incentives, face different barriers, have different advantages and resources, move at different speeds, and comply with the program requirements with more or less energy and commitment. These significant variations speak to the difficulty of getting any group of people to move along a spectrum of progress, no matter how virtuous are the program objectives.

One example is instructive. In an age of poor nutrition among low-income children, participation in free school lunch in Salt Lake Valley hovers around a meager 50 percent of children; breakfast and after-school snack participation is far less. One might think that if you put a hungry child in a room with free, healthy and good-tasting food, you’ll solve the problem.

The reality is that each child and parent makes decisions individually and as a family. Many kids don’t like to come to school early to get breakfast, and they don’t want the stigma of possibly being labeled as poor kids if they do. Thus, many low-income schools have moved breakfast from the lunchroom to the classroom so everyone can participate. But janitors understandably resist having first-graders getting syrup on not just their pancakes but their desks, too. And teachers didn’t necessarily sign up to be food service workers, either.

We need to continue to give blankets and money to the poor and needy and to give our neighbors a hand. We need to support by volunteering for and giving money to the many charities who help those in need with life-sustaining support.

30 comments on this story

While they deliver an immense amount of resources to house, feed and generally sustain those in poverty, War on Poverty programs have failed to reduce the net poverty rate below a stubborn margin. Until we refashion our approach and methods, these programs will not lift millions and millions of our fellow citizens out of the Slough of Despond.

Helping people in long-term poverty to overcome it is one of the most difficult assignments we have before us as a society. We can’t give up. But we need to work on it a lot more and in smarter ways.