People in poverty are rarely poor because they don’t have access to money. It is usually because they don’t have access to opportunity.
The war on poverty really didn’t begin with Lyndon Johnson in 1964. It began in 1776, and for almost 200 years, America was winning the war on poverty. Tragically, and ironically, we didn’t start losing the war on poverty until the federal government declared that it would handle it.
In 1861, Abraham Lincoln told Congress that the “leading object” of American government was “to elevate the condition of men – to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life.” In a single sentence, Lincoln explains precisely what poverty is, and what government ought to do about it.
A constantly expanding government has spawned myriad disparate and often competing federal and state agencies and programs that are incentivized to be more concerned about protecting their turf than helping those in need.
If we are serious about the charge to lift artificial weights from all shoulders and provide all with a fair chance, we need to consolidate state and federal poverty programs – including health care, unemployment, education and general welfare programs. Having a unified “poverty to prosperity” program could transform the path of upward mobility. Its organizing principle should be to make poverty temporary instead of just tolerable by encouraging and rewarding the “success sequence,” including: finishing school/developing new skills, finding a job, getting married and having children within marriage, along with acquiring the disciplines, skills, tools, life structures and networks for lifelong learning and self-reliance.
We must replace programs that treat people in poverty like liabilities to be managed with a program that treats them like unique individuals – human assets, with unlimited potential to be developed.
Currently we offer financial or material benefits based on poverty status. In other words, our present approach makes people’s ability to improve their quality of life through government programs – including feeding their families, accessing health care, and gaining an education – dependent upon remaining in poverty! This “prosperity cliff” penalizes those who are truly striving to become self reliant – often putting those in poverty into inhumane situations where the most reasonable, and even responsible, option for them and their family is to remain in poverty. Many are trapped in poverty by the very government agencies that are supposed to be elevating their condition.
It is also vital that those in poverty are treated with the dignity and respect that will allow them to say, in hindsight, that they gained their self-reliance from their own successful life decisions and hard work, not just through government handouts. By focusing on proven skills and a success sequence we can confidently clear the path of laudable pursuit for all who are struggling to rise from poverty to prosperity.
Boyd Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute.