Last week Philip N. Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and senior scholar with the Council on Contemporary Families, published an article in the Washington Post arguing that “American policy fails at reducing child poverty because it aims to fix the poor.”
The headline grabbed my attention.
It succinctly captured what decades of work with low-income communities have taught me: We don’t need saviors to teach poor people the right morals. We need advocates to recognize and cultivate their strengths so that they move out of poverty themselves.
Current anti-poverty policies that aim to fix them, actually work against them.
Cohen’s piece scrutinizes this current approach, and dispenses with it. He challenges the motives, logic, and outcomes of anti-poverty policies that pressure poor parents to get married or find jobs as a precondition for government assistance:
We know growing up poor is bad for kids. But instead of focusing on the money, U.S. anti-poverty policy often focuses on the perceived moral shortcomings of the poor themselves. … Specifically, we offer two choices to poor parents if they want to escape poverty: get a job, or get married. Not only does this approach not work, but it’s also a cruel punishment for children who cannot be held responsible for their parents’ decisions.
Tax benefits like the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit are reserved for those able to find and hold a job, which can be all but impossible for people struggling to care for young children or older parents and people with disabilities that make it difficult to work. Welfare payments are restricted by work requirements and time limits that leave millions of families out.
Other past, present, and proposed anti-poverty policies are designed to incentivize marriage, effectively penalizing parents who choose not to marry – a choice that everyone, rich or poor, should be able to make freely.
Policies like these fail to treat poor people with the respect they deserve.
And they fail to provide solutions that work for all families. Cohen proposes simpler alternatives, programs that serve all parents equally and offer poor families a leg up without imposing moral judgments on their individual decisions and needs.
This brings us to a broader lesson that all of us – policymakers, nonprofit leaders, community members – can learn from: We must meet people where they are, respect what they bring to the table, and build on the strengths they have.
This approach is not a pipe dream. I see it work every day with Lending Circles.
MAF’s social loan programs begin from a position of respect, acknowledging and valuing the rich resources and financial savvy that our clients already possess. We then build on those strengths by integrating their positive behaviors and informal practices into the mainstream financial marketplace.
Poor people are not broken. They have strengths that we too often fail to recognize.
Rather than judging their behavior and imposing our own values on them, we must treat them with dignity and seek out solutions that work for everyone, whatever their background, abilities – or marital status.