The U.S. Census Bureau recently announced that 46.2 million Americans live below the poverty line. The poverty rate of 15 percent is the same as last year. Spending on federal anti-poverty programs rose by 37 percent since 2008, yet poverty increased by 16 percent.
We need to make sure that every American can rise out of poverty. If being born into a poor community is a dead end, then the American dream is gone.
This week on Capitol Hill, I joined the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, the Heritage Foundation and more than a dozen grassroots groups in a summit to discuss innovative ways to fight poverty.
One of the leaders we heard from was Ronnie "Rsen" Ortiz, who used to live on the streets of Richmond, Va. Now he works with the Richmond Outreach Center to help keep kids in school. At the summit he lamented that government guidelines say his organization is unqualified to perform certain work with kids. Reformed drug users, convicts, and other people who took full advantage of their second chance usually don't have masters degrees in social work or education. What they do have is far more valuable: real experience in overcoming life's difficulties.
When they speak to a young person at risk, they don't just confront them with statistics or psychology. They speak from the heart. The qualities of these individuals can't be written into a resume. They don't fit the bureaucratic mold, yet they are a hundred times more effective in changing hearts and minds.
Many of these groups have an explicitly religious message. Government grants and assistance will never be an option for them. They don't need or want money from the government. They only want to be allowed to do good work. We shouldn't restrict access or throw up bureaucratic roadblocks to charities just because they want to share their faith. We need a level playing field for everyone who wants to help.
When one of the attendees noted that: "Compassion without expectations is enablement," a lot of heads around the table nodded. None of these organizations expect real change unless they set high goals for the individuals they assist. They get results because they don't hand out an entitlement without any expectation of progress.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration's anti-poverty efforts are heading in the opposite direction. Earlier this summer, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would allow states to waive welfare work requirements. These requirements were at the heart of the welfare reform legislation passed in the Clinton administration.
The Obama administration wants to replace the welfare reform standards requiring a certain number of participants to be working part-time, looking for work, or engaged in other qualifying activities. The new standard would allow states to claim they are making progress in moving recipients from assistance to work even as welfare rolls dramatically expand. It's rolling back the clock on a successful, bipartisan reform.
Enrolling people in welfare with no expectation that they will even look for work is no way to fight poverty. Only a job can provide the dignity, skills and income to move up in the world and live the American dream.
Sadly, government programs that have no expectations for recipients actually undermine the good work being done by the people I met at the summit. They know that rising up out of poverty takes significant work on the part of the individual. If there is a choice between government assistance that requires no commitment, and private assistance that requires some effort, many will choose the easier path.
The solutions to poverty are not simple because human beings aren't simple. The government typically sees people as a number. Grassroots organizations run by people who rose up out of poverty understand the problem at a personal level. They know what it takes to become independent.
We need a government safety net, but it needs to be carefully constructed in a way to encourage independence. The leaders I met live in communities that suffer from crime, drug abuse and broken families. They work hard to create a brighter future. We need to do everything we can to make that work easier.