Editor’s Note: The following piece appears in This Way Up: New Thinking About Poverty and Economic Mobility, a collection of essays published by the American Enterprise Institute. It is reprinted here with permission.
I want to challenge us to think about American poverty in a new way.
For decades now, the policy community has thought the problem with American poverty is that we haven’t been able to help people enough. The government has spent $20 trillion since the mid 1960s trying to alleviate poverty by helping struggling people meet their material needs. And indeed, poverty has become more bearable in strictly material terms.
But earned success has not become meaningfully more attainable. In 1964, 15 percent of the country was in poverty, and about the same percentage of the country was still in poverty in 2017. So while poverty has become more bearable — we’ve helped people somewhat effectively with government money — it has not become any more escapable. Is that really success?
The deep problem is this: Those who are poor in our country are increasingly being told, implicitly and explicitly, that they are not needed by the rest of society. And the result of so many people not being needed is a dignity deficit.
When people are told, by everything from labor markets to trends in family formation, “You’re not necessary, you’re not useful,” that will attenuate any sense of dignity. And that leads to a culture and an economy of despair. It leads to opiate and alcohol abuse. It leads to an uptick in suicide. And that’s what we’re seeing in our country.
But not everywhere.
One of my all-time favorite nonprofit projects is Ready, Willing & Able, run by the Doe Fund in New York City. It has taught me a lot about how we can repair the dignity deficit.
You see the people who are working for Ready, Willing & Able near Fifth Avenue in New York City: men in blue jumpsuits sweeping the streets. Ready, Willing & Able is actually a homeless-shelter program. But instead of focusing on how to help people, it focuses on how to create opportunities in which these men are needed.
I’ve met some of these men. One of the friends I made is named Rick. When I met him, he’d just gotten out of prison after a long spell. He has a story that you hear a lot: petty crime when he was a teenager, then selling drugs, and finally there was a terrible crime. He had to start over completely.
He made his way to the Doe Fund and started out like everyone does — sweeping the streets. He moved on after a few weeks or months into vocational training and then got his first real job, working for an exterminator agency, killing bugs. Many people would call that a dead-end job. But what the Doe Fund understands is that work is work and that all work can be sanctified and that all work is a good thing if we use it to build up our lives in the service of people who need us.
A few months into the program, I asked Rick, “How is your life?” and he said, “Let me show you.” And he showed me an email from his boss: “Rick, emergency bedbug job, East 65th Street. I need you now.”
I said, “So what?”
He said, “Read it again: ‘I need you now.’ That is the first time in my life anybody has said those words to me.”
We all need that. We all need to be needed. That’s the essence of what it means to be alive. And that — not just a paycheck — might be the most deeply important benefit that we get from employment. No amount of material help can really alleviate the human cost of not being needed.
This has to become the central question that animates our policy discussions. Not, “How can government become more efficient or effective at helping people in poverty?” It has to be: “How can we rebuild an economy and culture where everyone has the tools to be necessary to their families, their communities, and their employers?”
I hope and believe that our country has enough love in our hearts to take on this question of human dignity. That’s what it comes down to — not just successful public policy, but love.
It comes down to brotherhood. It comes down to solidarity. We will be judged ultimately, as a society, by the extent to which we treat other people with that solidarity and with that love. Not just by the extent to which we make it more temporary. We need to make dignity more attainable for everyone.