WASHINGTON – The conventional wisdom is that the Republican Party has no message for the poor and marginalized in America. The GOP established orthodoxy is that public policy should focus on creating and maintaining good fundamentals: a pro-business tax system that will favor the creation of enterprise, while allowing workers to keep more of what they earn; a simplified regulatory environment that will not hinder economic activities, and a healthy fiscal picture that will not saddle the country with an unsustainable debt burden.
If we can get all of the above, then the American economy, whose foundations rest on self-reliant, enterprising people, will take care of itself. Assuming good fundamentals, there will be expansion, growth, more jobs. More jobs means more people employed and more opportunity for all, including those currently living in poverty.
Well, in principle this sounds right. But in practice it is not true that “a rising tide lifts all boats”. There are far too many boats in disrepair. They have holes in their hulls. They will not benefit from a rising tide. And some Americans do not have a boat. Not even a little one. A rising tide does nothing for them.
Multigenerational poverty in America
The truth is that there are tens of millions of marginalized Americans who are not in a condition to benefit when the economy grows. Their situation, notwithstanding scores of public assistance programs, have not improved over many years.
Worse yet, it is obvious that for most of them poverty is not just an accident, a period of bad luck. For millions poverty is a permanent condition. In fact, in today’s America poverty is often a multigenerational, self-perpetuating phenomenon.
There is an invisible wall that in practice separates poor people and their children from opportunity. And, oddly enough, public assistance programs, however well-intentioned, have become an integral part of this wall.
Birth is destiny: the poor will stay poor
Indeed, in today’s America, most children born in poverty have very few chances of getting out of it. Too many factors conspire against success. Many of them have no real families, or live in dysfunctional families. For them, access to good or even adequate education is a dream. And therefore there is little or no opportunity to learn, to develop intellectually, and to acquire marketable skills.
For them there is no American Dream. Forget about upward mobility. Just as in medieval Europe, with all its rigid class stratification, for them “birth is destiny“. If you were born poor, most likely you will stay poor.
Welfare programs have failed
The Democrats have tried to address poverty. But their solutions, based on relief programs, have failed. Without getting into any detailed analysis, income support programs allow poor people to survive, but in most cases they do not provide the necessary tools to get out of poverty.
“The Way Forward”
Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is well-known on the national political scene for his competent advocacy of entitlement spending reform. As Chairman of the House Budget Committee, he has become a credible spokesperson for revamped and streamlined entitlement programs that should be in line with America’s changed demographics and increased health care costs. And he got an even larger national platform to discuss these issues as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012.
But now Ryan has written a book, a good book, titled The Way Forward, Renewing The American Idea. There is a lot there. But the part that intrigued me the most is his passionate committment to address multigenerational poverty in America in a constructive way.
Change the psychology
The fact is that poverty is about a lot more than lack of money. Poverty is about psychology; it is about having given up, about resignation. In his book Ryan describes many grass-roots initiatives aimed at helping addicts. The important point is that in all of them recovering addicts are given a chance: a place to stay, food. But they are also given responsibilities and tasks to accomplish.
With the comfort of a helping hand that holds them and lifts them up, these recovering addicts have to commit to help themselves. The message of so many stories that Ryan discusses is more or less this: “You are not alone in this journey. We are here to help you. And this is what we are going to do with you. We shall teach you skills, and we shall coach you on how to get ahead. But you have to do your part. You have to commit to learn and to be dependable and responsible. In the end, we want to see you positive and confident, going into the world with the self-assurance of someone who can take care of himself”.
From welfare to coaching
From this perspective, as Ryan puts it, existing welfare programs, (now mostly focusing on income support), have to be transformed into coaching programs.
An unemployed poor person will be assigned to a case worker. And it is the job of the case worker to develop a strategy, so that in the end the person he is coaching will get new skills and a job. The real point of welfare should be to give tools, not just cash. Of course, some cash may be indispensable. But if cash is all you get, then you will probably survive; but you will never get ahead. And if the cash dries out, then you are in big trouble. Hence the self-perpetuating cycle of dependence. Cash is insufficient, but it has become indispensable.
Feeding the poor not enough
This sounds so simple. And yet America so far has failed to develop a constructive approach aimed at teaching skills to the poor so that they will be able to get ahead.
The Democratic Party keeps talking about our duty as a country to help the disadvantaged. But, at least implicitly, the Democrats talk about income support and various subsidies as permanent measures for people who are today, and will be for ever, needy.
The picture we get is that the poor will always be poor, and therefore they will always need help. And it is society’s duty to provide assistance through public programs.
Help people by teaching them skills
Not so, says Ryan. The real goal is to help people in need to become self-sufficient. There are many good quotes in Ryan’s book that encapsulate this simple yet extremely necessary shift in the way we think about poverty.
“Let me show you how to make it”
Here is what Ryan got from Bishop Shirley Holloway, who created House of Help City of Hope, an initiative aimed at helping people trying to escape substance abuse addictions. Real compassion, says Holloway, comes with responsibility:
“Sometimes we think love is give me some food, give me some money…But real love says: Let me show how to survive, let me show you how to make it, let me show you how to be happy, let me show you how to do this”.