The following piece is part of a larger symposium on National Review Online, weighing in on Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty initiative.
Poverty should have no “sides.” Yet the War on Poverty, as we well know, has been politically and philosophically divisive. The Right is viewed as caring only for the rich and powerful, while the Left is seen as recklessly running up entitlements. Yet our shared humanity leads us to care about those in need and help them gain secure footing. Need this be a war between the sides, rather than a war on poverty?
Put yourself in the shoes of the poor for a moment. What would you find helpful?
I’d venture to suggest that I’d welcome assistance on two primary fronts: 1) help securing my most basic needs—food, shelter, and clothing—from a local community that understands my challenges, integrated with support to help me become employable; and 2) an economic climate that helped me either find a job or make a job.
Clearly, it’s not that simple to move from poverty to employment. Those who work with the poor, whether the formerly incarcerated, victims of domestic violence, or low-income workers, all speak of the same trap: the belief that they are incapable of achieving more.
We need to invest in approaches that help people see how their lives can be different. We need to help them transition, through education and work, from a life of survival to a live of achievement. But there are many obstacles along the way, such as job barriers against those with felony records, or regulatory restrictions against small businesses and other entrepreneurial endeavors. This is unfortunate because entrepreneurship offers a wonderful second chance for those with less-than-stellar résumés.
We can straddle the divide by supporting approaches that foster liberty, opportunity, and personal responsibility, and that start from the belief that people can help themselves. We should also develop policies that dismantle disincentives to work, and we must at the same time create an economic climate that fosters job growth for all.
As we help more people make the transition to independence, we not only help them experience the dignity and joy of caring for themselves and their families, but we also preserve the safety net for those in need at that time. And one day, that could be you or me.
Jo Kwong is director of economic opportunity at The Philanthropy Roundtable.