September 3, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 36

Director's Corner

Giving it away, but who gets it?

By Timothy Harris / Executive Director

Our human service "solutions" to poverty continue to miss the point

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Presumptive 2016 Republican presidential nominee Sen. Paul Ryan has discovered poverty, and he’s speaking our language. By that, I mean the language of finding system efficiencies and creating “one-stop shopping” for services and pursing data-driven solutions that deliver results.

I mean the language of holding individuals accountable for their success or failure in “moving on” to a better life. The sort of language that public housing providers roll out when they talk about time limits and raising rents for residents while selling off public property to private developers.

I mean the assumption that poverty is often a matter of bad luck and poor choices, and that with a social worker and an individually tailored human services plan, most anyone who tries can find stability and success.

Paul Ryan isn’t talking about “makers” and “takers” anymore. He’s been meeting with “people on the front lines,” who are fighting poverty eye to eye, soul to soul, person to person.” He speaks with the zeal of a convert.

The federal government, he says, “should not be dictating the front lines of poverty. It should be minding the supply lines” and providing resources while local communities provide “the human touch” that only they can.

Ryan was on NPR last week, promoting his new book, “The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea,” and if his ideas sound familiar, it’s because they are. None of this would be out of place at a National Alliance to End Homelessness conference.

These ideas represent the mainstream of human services delivery, all the way down to his answer to Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, who asked whether all this might miss the point of why people are poor.

Ryan said he agrees with the service provider who is “not going to take on the entire macroeconomic policy-planning world.” He’s going to focus on what works.

I’ve heard this from human service providers, too. The difference, of course, is that Ryan isn’t the head of some $100 million human services agency. He’s the trickle-down “visionary” who wrote the Republican budget.

His 2012 Path to Prosperity budget privatizes Medicare, repeals Obamacare, shifts responsibility for human services to the charitable sector, cuts taxes to the wealthiest and eliminates taxes altogether on profits made overseas.

Over the last decade, we’ve moved from having two million workers in America that subsist on minimum wage jobs to more than 3.2 million. Over the same period of time we’ve gone from having 313 American billionaires to 492.

We are subsidizing corporate profits with public benefits, such as food stamps and emergency health care, for those who work full-time but still don’t earn enough to live. That’s not a human services problem. It’s an issue of inequality.

So, when it comes to shoveling money to the rich, macroeconomics is apparently just fine. It only becomes impractical when we’re talking about helping the poor.

If ever there was a time for macroeconomic solutions to poverty, it is now. But, apart from the movement to increase the minimum wage, that’s not what we’re getting. We’re getting individualized solutions, pushed to the local level and to the charitable sector that divide us into the deserving and underserving poor.

It concerns me that the mainstream ideology that defines the human service delivery is so easily co-opted by a radical like Paul Ryan. It concerns me how good all of this sounds rolling off his oleaginous tongue.

It concerns me that, while the gulf between rich and poor becomes more and more absurd, our human service “solutions” to poverty continue to miss the point.

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