End Poverty in America
By Donald E. Simpson
I am very grateful that Pope Francis has reminded everyone—not just Roman Catholics—that helping the poor should be our number one priority. The saddest comment on poverty is that until Pope Francis said that helping the poor should be the top priority—yes, above the social and other issues—no one seemed to even have helping the poor nor easing poverty on their agenda. This paper proposes a goal and a plan to meet that goal that, once implemented, will not just end poverty in America, but, by its very nature, will permanently improve the US economy and the lives of everyone in this country. It will be good politically for both parties. It is time to stop trying to make people less poor—we need an actual end to poverty. Here is where it starts.
This paper proposes a goal that, in order to be accomplished, returns America to prosperity by creating an economy so strong that it will enable us to end poverty in America. The American people are looking for such a goal from its leadership, one that all Americans can embrace as the beginning of their new, prosperous future—for them, for their children, for their grandchildren.
Here is that goal: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of providing a path for all Americans who are physically or cognitively able to earn their way out of poverty, and, once out of poverty, for all Americans to be able to stay out of poverty by their own individual effort.
Rebuilding the American economy and ending poverty require the same two things—work for Americans and American workers: legitimate work for every American who wants to earn an honest living and American workers with the skills needed for that work. The good news is that the solution that ends poverty, by its very nature, includes creating an American economy that nurtures the creativity and the hard work of all Americans so that new businesses and new jobs are created to replace businesses and jobs that are no longer viable. America must have an infrastructure that supports a populace that is continually creating new jobs and constantly being retrained for those new jobs. That is the strong economic foundation that we need.
For far too long, America’s solution to poverty has been giving people a fish and planting rice, figuratively speaking, rather than continually teaching them the new ways to fish and educating them so that they can be self-reliant, productive members of our society. That learning must continue throughout one’s life, since gone are the days when you learned a profession and worked in it until you retire. Jobs come and go; companies come and go. America needs to be a place where everyone has the opportunity to continue to be a productive member of our great society.
A challenge this important and complex needs to be treated like the last significant accomplishment in America: the Space Program. Most people think it is impossible to actually end poverty, just as landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth was thought to be impossible not so long ago.
Here is John F. Kennedy’s challenge that started the Space Program: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Hopefully the period in our Government of goals like “…go into Baghdad and take out Saddam Hussein” and “no timetables” is over. Goals need a completion date and need to have specific, measurable objectives.
Why not just keep doing what we have been doing? The short answer: It isn’t working. America has had a “War on Poverty” since the Sixties. The Government—Federal, State, and local—has been trying the simple, obvious fixes that, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, are dead wrong. This is not a simple problem that can be solved with quick-fixes like vouchers, charter schools, or better pay for teachers, although those may play a role in the comprehensive solution. As an example, if our current educational system was working for all Americans, why do so many people feel we still need Affirmative Action more than 50 years after it was instituted? Although I fully agree with Supreme Court decisions for equality, such as public school de-segregation, I firmly believe that the courts are the wrong place for coming up with long-term solutions to problems. So here we are, over 50 years after the famed “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We have made progress—institutionalized segregation has ended, we have elected a black President, yet inequality and poverty persist in America. It is time to end poverty in America.
Thankfully, America does not suffer from the extreme poverty found in some parts of the world, yet a large portion of our populace suffers from the inability to reach for the American dream and earn their way in the pursuit of happiness. I believe that America can do a better job of providing an infrastructure that enables our young people to get the education and learn the skills necessary to be productive members of our society. A large pool of highly-skilled, productive workers is a critical element in a vibrant, sustainable American economy.
As we are seeing clearly in the current economic crisis, poverty is not merely a condition you are born into or perhaps “choose” by doing things like dropping out of school or joining a gang when young and then suffer with your entire life. I have several friends in their 50’s who are either unemployed or under employed who did everything “right”—all bright, hard-working people with college and advanced degrees from top universities, who suddenly found themselves “downsized”. I was saddened to learn that an engineer that had once worked for me had lost his house a few years ago after he and his wife both lost their jobs. Thankfully, they are earning their way back from that tragedy. It doesn’t matter how people got poor or why they are poor, a top priority of Jesus Christ was to help the poor. We must help them to help themselves.
In these tough economic times, what will this cost? Initially, very little. A project like this needs to start small, with teams defining the problems and all the smaller accomplishments that make the big accomplishment work. Then comes defining solutions to the problems and finding more problems to be solved. As those lists grow, the teams solving them grow. Just as the space program didn’t start by trying to send a rocket to the moon, but focused on the “returning him safely to the earth” part of the goal, ending poverty will focus on how to encourage folks to earn their way out of poverty, and on preparing them to do so. Once solutions are in place, they will be tried, tested, and proven on a small scale before implementing on a larger scale. Eventually, the investment will be significant. Our tax dollars spent will be an investment that will reap huge benefits in the future, well justifying the cost. It can be argued that the investment in the Space Program brought us the prosperity we enjoyed until recently, since it needed advances in computers and many other enabling technologies. Also, just as NASA wasn’t dismantled after we saw Neil Armstrong on TV stepping onto the moon, then safely back on the earth, ending poverty will be an on-going effort.
What will it take to rebuild such a strong American economy that we can actually end poverty? First and foremost is education: Education is vital for the young, and must continue through adulthood with re-training for newly created jobs as old jobs or skills become obsolete. It also must include special educational programs and encouragement for best and brightest so new inventions are made, new industries created, with new, better jobs available to everyone. Ending poverty means jobs for everyone who can and wants to work.
Affordable healthcare is essential to ending poverty. Although “universal insurance” may sound like the simple and obvious answer, it is not a panacea. The deductibles, co-payments, and the cost of medication can send someone into poverty. Another “man on the moon” team will be needed to re-design the way healthcare is provided in America.
Other areas that will need review are food, housing, and financial systems. Predatory lending practices have certainly led many people back into poverty. Education will help people understand that they are being robbed; better regulation will prevent government-approved stealing from hard-working Americans trying to earn their way out of poverty. Clearly the free-markets that Adam Smith envisioned relied on a higher level of ethics and morality than we see in our business leaders today. Jesus wasn’t wild about the money lenders, either.
Just as we didn’t put a man on the moon by tweaking the airplane, we cannot fix our educational system by throwing money at the symptoms. The latest program, “No child left behind” added testing, under the misconception that you can test quality into an existing product, which is simply an example of what I call turd polishing—no matter what you do to it, it is still a turd. Testing is most important when developing a new product. In general, testing confirms quality, it does not create quality. The way we educate our people needs to be re-thought and re-designed. Too many children are dropping out, too many are committing suicide, too many are joining gangs, and way too many are not reaching their full potential. Education in America is a huge problem that needs a “man on the moon” team to come up with a workable long-term solution.
Included in the education plan will certainly be training in problem solving and accomplishment, so people know whether the solution they are working on will actually solve the problem or help them meet their goal. Hopefully that will lead to greater accomplishments and less “quick-fixes” that don’t actually work. Questions will be asked, such as: Why are so many young people joining gangs? and Why do so many kids drop out of school? The new educational system will be something that children will want to participate in, not something they are forced to do, and bad behavior certainly won’t be rewarded with less time in school, as is done today.
I don’t think I’ve ever cried after finishing a book before, but I did after reading: “The death and life of the great American school system: how testing and choice are undermining education” by Diane Ravitch. In addition to the issues listed in the title, she covers such topics as the effects of simply closing large, underperforming schools and dispersing the students to smaller schools. One negative side-effect is that the schools lose programs, such as music and sports, since they lack the critical mass. It is a well-researched and excellent, yet very, very sad tale.
An advantage the Space Program had was that most people understood that they knew very little about putting a man on the moon, but, in contrast, just about everyone has an opinion on how to end poverty or—I’ve been surprised to discover—whether we should even try to end poverty. This will be an obstacle for ending poverty, and is why ending poverty cannot be solved by public referendum, but needs to be handled by experts who will define what is to be accomplished and the problems to be solved, then come up with workable solutions that can and will be implemented. That concept might even lead to a government where all legislation has a comprehensive goal statement of what it intends to accomplish and rules to eliminate all elements that do not support the goal. That would end “pork” pretty fast.
Does ending poverty help the middle and upper classes? Yes, it will and it must. Any plan for rebuilding the American economy and ending poverty will include a plan for educating and re-educating everyone. That education will help stimulate the brightest and hardest working to create new products and new jobs that will be filled by the well-educated hard-working populace. This plan also needs to include programs for preventing those currently working from becoming obsolete in the job force and falling into poverty. Ending poverty is truly a tide that raises all boats—everyone benefits.
Will this mean that there will be no poor people? Unfortunately, no. As the parable of the sowers points out, some seed may fall on hard ground; not everyone who is able will want to expend the effort to raise themselves out of poverty, and we must give them the freedom to make that choice. Being poor doesn’t have to mean that they starve to death, though. Remember that “poor” is always a relative term—it wasn’t that long ago that only the rich had a toilet inside their house.
So, after we end poverty in America, will the rest of the World’s poor want to move here? No, if done right, this program will become a model for other countries that they can use to end poverty. Once in place, their citizens who have moved to the U.S. will want to return and enjoy the prosperity of their Homeland.
Donald E. Simpson
February 1, 2014
©2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 Donald E. Simpson
References, in order:
Chinese Proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for his whole life.
Confucius: If your plan is for one year, plant rice, if your plan is for ten years, plant trees, if your plan is for 100 years, educate your people.
JFK speech date: May 25, 1961
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speech date: August 28, 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial
Winston Churchill: Every problem has a simple and obvious solution that is dead wrong. (Also attributed to H.L. Mencken)
Money Lenders: Matthew 21:12-13
Parable of the sowers: Matthew 13: 3-8