We are constantly inundated with information about our nation’s poor, our welfare recipients and socio-economic decline. What has happened to our society and led so many fellow citizens into dire inter-generational poverty? How can we help them without bankrupting the federal government?
Poverty in America is generally caused by the breakdown of the nuclear family and a lack of education. Both of these contribute to the cycle of poverty, entrenching hundreds of thousands of American families to lives of need. Before the spike in single parenting and teen pregnancy, there was drastically less poverty even when controlling for socioeconomic class and race.
The breakdown of the traditional family model in America has led to many teen pregnancies and single parent households—social norms and legal bindings holding the family together have been eroded. Teenage women become pregnant and often drop out of school in order to take care of their child. With little education and little opportunity for a decent paying job, there is little hope for breaking the cycle of poverty. These women often must rely on welfare to survive because of inadequate options for childcare or for work.
Similarly, children from single-parent households are more likely to grow up in poverty and remain in poverty due to lack of education or joblessness. A lack of education often leads to a spiral of either underemployment or unemployment, which contributes to the continued poverty of the family and decreases the chance for the upward mobility of the child. In a vicious cycle, children born into poor cicumstances receive inadequate education because of their parents’ poverty and lack of emphasis on education.
However, by adjusting the way we approach welfare, America can eradicate the scourge of poverty. Besides encouraging existing government programs targeted at ending teen pregnancy and fostering education among the poor, Congress should consider the implementation of a more state, instead of federal, oriented approach when the government contemplates welfare reform in the coming months.
Much consideration has been given to reducing the teen pregnancy rate and lowering the number of children out-of-wedlock in America. There are many existing programs that encourage abstinence or safe sex, but these methods are far from satisfactory. Research finds that teens are more likely to become pregnant mothers if they grow up in a dysfunctional or impoverished family, a result and a cause of the cycle of poverty. It is possible to lower the teen pregnancy rate by adjusting the focus of welfare to providing children at a young age with stable and supportive community environments, local after-school programs and better access to contraception.
There are also many federal programs aimed at improving the education of the poor. These programs aim to increase the income of impoverished families and attempt to end the cycle of poverty through higher education. Converting the welfare system to be more state and community oriented would provide more specific relief to the impoverished. Beginning with the New Deal in the 1930s through the Great Society in the 1960s to current day policy, the federal government has shouldered more and more of the burden of welfare administration. But they are failing. Because each state is different and the needs of the impoverished can change between Miami, Portland and New York, community programs are better suited to fight poverty at this local level.
With the help of state funding, these programs can provide job training, educational assistance, housing aid and drug rehabilitation. The key to embracing these local programs is their emphasis on the entire family. Many such programs help parents keep their jobs or return to school while providing childcare, community services and educational help for their children. Recently, a bill was introduced by Representatives Young and Delaney to Congress to create social impact bonds (SIB) which provide rebates to successful state and local nonprofits who can prove a sustained commitment to help local, poor communities. Federalized legislation like the SIB Act will allow more tailored solutions to America’s poverty problem.
Obviously, we cannot solve the problem of poverty overnight. Many have tried, and Congress is thinking about trying again. I believe the best way to combat the poverty we see today is to observe and analyze the root causes of poverty within America—teen pregnancy and single parent households—and work to address them. By transitioning the majority of our welfare system to the states, giving the power to local institutions that know more about community needs, we can finally return to a society of low unemployment, which will also help close the wealth gap threatening to divide our nation.
DPU’s Burke & Paine is a biweekly column that runs on alternate Wednesdays. Each column will feature a different writer and will cover a different topic related to political engagement. Trinity junior Beth Sercombe wrote this week’s column.
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