Before we enter the New Year, I wanted to introduce myself as Thelonius Jane. I am a social worker with experience in working with urban and rural homeless populations and non-profit health care. In my work, I often become frustrated by the way most of our society dismisses the struggles and challenges of our nation’s poorest and the way we often infantilize people who are in need of help. Alexis de Tocqueville, French politician and writer, put it well when he stated “For people to have the opportunity to live full and rewarding lives, they have to be in control of what they do, even if that happens to be economically insufficient.” Most of our methods in reducing poverty reduce the incentives to create change and to make personal choices. To put it simply, individuals must have the freedom to make their own choices and it will not happen if the federal government is making decisions for them.
There is an array of federal programs that provide assistance to people in need. I think it’s safe to say that most people carry some compassion for the poor and have a general understanding that there are various factors that cause or prolong poverty. There are camps that believe federal programs are 1) valuable and essential, 2) unfair and an incentive to be poor and unemployed, and 3) are doing a really poor job of managing issues that would be better handled by local communities. I fall in the third. I agree that all people have a human right to quality food, shelter, and healthcare. Programs like food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families (TANF), Section 8, Housing Choice, Women Infant and Children (WIC), and Medicaid are the government’s way of providing these rights to US Citizens. But you better be able to wait a considerable amount of time to access these resources (so wait when you’re in crisis) and have enough wherewithal to navigate complicated benefit systems. Furthermore, these programs often promote living in poverty and force people to make choices influenced by scarcity. There is a psychology of poverty and it really does change the way you look at the world and how you make decisions. The way our current system works gives people little control over their own lives and environment and guides some of the choices they make.
Social change will not happen if communities are reliant on erratic government funding and decision-making. Allowing communities to decide where to place resources and how to find reciprocal relationships within their communities to meet individual needs will promote creative problem solving and will likely improve the conditions of social issues. Empathy, solidarity, and creativity are key principles in creating change and are much easier to cultivate when a relationship already exists within a community. I say we take the decision making out of the hands of the people on Capitol Hill and place it in the hands of community members. BUT, we are not there yet. It’s most helpful at this point to find the places where authentic, genuine, respectful change is being made and attempt to build off of that momentum. I hope this gives you an idea of where I come from. See you next year!