Reducing Poverty in America

The U.S. Census Bureau recently released new poverty statistics which showed that about 16% of Americans, or about 50 million people, lived in poverty in 2012. These higher numbers should provoke discussions about the ongoing destruction of middle class due to Republican trickle-down economic policies. But they will also lead to calls for increasing government funding of poverty programs.

But spending more money on existing programs won’t necessarily improve the situation. I know because I used to be a welfare caseworker. My firsthand experience was that, while keeping bad situations from getting worse, our public assistance programs also breed dependency, thus perpetuating cycles of poverty. In fact, I often felt the real purpose of our welfare system was just to allow most Americans to feel like they’re doing something to help poor people.

I believe our public assistance programs should focus more on removing barriers that prevent people from being self sufficient. I know this isn’t an original idea, but I think my firsthand experience gives me better insight into how to accomplish it. Some of my suggestions have already been implemented in some form in various places. But I think the following list should become the primary focus of our nation’s welfare system.

Poor People Need Affordable Transportation and Day Care

First, the primary obstacle to employment for poor parents with young children is the lack of safe and affordable day care. We can make the most difference with increased public welfare funding by putting the money into day care subsidies.

The next biggest employment obstacle for poor people is the lack of reliable and affordable transportation to get to their workplaces. We need to put more money into public transportation. People shouldn’t have to be able to afford to drive a car legally as a precondition for employment. Many poor people get ticketed for driving a car without current registration or insurance. Often, they can’t afford to pay the fines and this starts them on a downward spiral within the U.S. legal system, especially when they get caught driving illegally again because they had to drive to work and couldn’t pay the fines.

Most of the people living in poverty in America are children, and one of the primary reasons is an absent parent that isn’t contributing to their support – typically a man. We need to beef up funding for child support prosecutions. Many states are already doing this with significant success. But we need to create an environment where deadbeat dads know they will be quickly brought to justice and required to help pay for their children. A national media campaign would help.

And finally, we shouldn’t mess with Social Security or Medicare. The Census Bureau’s new poverty statistics show that if it weren’t for Social Security, the poverty rate among seniors 65 and older would rise to about 55%.

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