The Hand Up


I’ve been thinking a lot about poverty lately.  Maybe it was Kevin Williamson’s piece on poverty in Appalachia, or The AEI video series on Social Justice as envisioned from a conservative viewpoint.  I was thinking about it long before the latest piece on poverty I shared, one with the provocative title “Can You Fight Poverty by Paying Kids to Go to School?”

If you haven’t read it, it’s a pretty long piece, and it centers around anti-poverty trial programs in New York City and Memphis.

When I shared the article, there were the inevitable knee-jerk responses, usually in the form of ‘WHY SHOULD I PAY PEOPLE TO DO WHAT THEY ALREADY SHOULD BE DOING?’  That was a clear indicator that the commenter had responded merely to the headline – a regrettable practice that people engage in too frequently.  If one just needs his ire stoked or his feelings stroked, I can point him to several clickbait sites that would love to help him out, and which would be glad to mine his social media data in the process.

But if you get past that initial reaction and read the entire piece, you’ll find that the programs detailed were overwhelmingly funded with private donations, something conservatives should support wholeheartedly.  And it raises the question: couldn’t conservatives do social services better than the government?  Isn’t that what we talk about when we champion private-sector solutions?  Couldn’t we on the conservative end of the spectrum administer more thorough poverty-reducing programs better than lefty activists employed in government agencies?  Shouldn’t we try?

And that caused a whole lot of thoughts to swirl in my head.  I don’t have an answer, just a series of stream-of-consciousness thoughts and questions I think we ought to be turning over as we prepare for the next round of elections, and the ones after that.

I start from the premise that conservatives cite often: wanting to have people take care of themselves.  Everyone says that.  And there are a lot of obstacles to doing that when a person has little education and experience.  Yes, you might speak of wasted opportunities, or corrupted systems, and you might be right, as far as exacerbating factors go.  But I think if we stop there, we can’t get closer to finding policies that can do some good.

If the amount of public assistance our country funds is unsustainable, surely the best thing to do is try to find a way to reduce the number of people using it.  You could try proposing wholesale and immediate termination of programs, based on their unsustainability, or the Constitution;  but you would always be proposing that from the party out of power, never able to implement that idea.  The way to achieve the same thing, with a better chance of winning while doing it, seems to be reducing the number of people using the system by helping them cease to need it.

So I’ve been thinking, how do you get from A (a person with low skills and education and also possibly bad habits and poor examples) to B (a person not only capable, but eager to take responsibility for themselves)?  You can’t make people change their hearts to become that self-reliant person you’re looking for.  But can you change the circumstances that perpetuate it for the next generation?  Can you incentivize behavior that gets you closer?

Is it possible to initiate a heart change with a situation change?  Can you, say, take a person who has five kids (and four stepchildren, as the article profiles), the woman who became pregnant as a teen, can you help her encourage her kids to reach for something more?  Can you give her incentives to help those children expect more out of themselves, expect more FOR themselves?

And that made me think about birth control, for example, and the politics around it.  There are two types of arguments that are being made, and I think it’s important to separate them.  The Sandra Flukes of the world who see free birth control as a way to perpetuate a War On Women political narrative, I dismiss out of hand.  That’s not what I’m talking about here.  But for people who live in poverty and who might benefit from increased access to birth control, and regular doctor visits that can supplement that with a focus on general wellness, can we make that happen?  Would it help?  Is anything outside of Planned Parenthood available that does that now?

Some people who object to it don’t want to subsidize immoral behavior, and I can understand that.  The abstinence education model is hotly debated, but I wonder what’s preferable.  In a situation where babies are born into cycles of poverty, do you go for the immediate heart change there?  Or do you first go for the practical ‘stop the teens giving birth’ cycle?  Is there a way that both can be done together?

That heart change v. situation change appears to be at the core of a lot of poverty problems.

Last year at a local Republican outreach event, a guy talked to me about starting a resource center, privately funded, that would offer help in communities of the working poor.  With plans for assisting people with tutoring, life skills, money management, practical things that can help give people more options, and begin to help them find ways to become independent.  I never heard from him again, and I regret not making sure I had his card, but I have thought about the idea a lot since that discussion.

I still think about it a lot.  I think about the people truly trapped in the system, as opposed to using the system, and how maybe the people who want to climb out of the poverty trap would benefit from a little outside support, a little acknowledgement that they’re trying, and some of that ‘hand up’ philosophy we talk about so often.  The government in a lot of places makes it a bad financial decision for a person to try to get out of the welfare trap.  It hurts people, rather than helps them.  Couldn’t we find a way to help more effectively than the government?  Given their track record, I’m sure the answer is yes.

I think the instinct that guy had was a good one.  What if we COULD do it better, and on a larger scale, with incentives, with achievement levels and rewards, and with a long-term investment in people’s lives?  What if we crowdsourced that, what if we Kickstartered that, what if we just DID IT?  How would it work?  What could we offer?  What could we begin to change?

I think it’s worth it to explore the possibilities, don’t you?


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