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The never-ending war on poverty

Tianna Gaines-Turner speaks to reporters in Philadelphia. Associated Press/Photo by Matt Rourke

The never-ending war on poverty

WASHINGTON—President Lyndon Johnson stood before Congress and declared a “war on poverty” in January 1964. Fifty years later, Congress is still debating how to fight it.

House Republicans proposed reforms for welfare programs but shied away from Democrats’ calls to spend more money during a Wednesday hearing of the budget committee.

Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., asked three panelists to share stories of how personal caseworkers help people escape poverty and how welfare programs can encourage dependency.

“For too long, the federal government has treated people as numbers,” Ryan said. “The point of these hearings is not to question whether the federal government should help. The point is to figure out the best way it can help.”

All three panelists said finding work is the chief solution to poverty, but they suggested reforms that would cost the government money.

Heather Reynolds, panelist and president of Catholic Charities Fort Worth, in Texas, said the government should create committees to study successful nonprofits and to replicate caseworker programs at a federal level.

Tianna Gaines-Turner, a Philadelphia wife and mother of three who lives below the poverty line, said the government should grow federal welfare programs. While the poor want to work, she said, food stamps and other programs stop or substantially decrease as soon as a family earns money or gets a savings account. If a family earns less than a living wage, losing welfare benefits may not help it out of poverty.

“I never wake up every day … and say that I want to be on public assistance,” Gaines-Turner said. She remains on food stamps since all her children have seizure disorders and asthma.

When Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., asked Gaines-Turner how increased federal programs would help people become financially independent, she became defensive. She argued the government needs to keep the working poor on welfare rolls longer so they can become self-sufficient.

Rokita was not convinced: “A government program cannot love. … It can’t break the cycle necessarily.”

Some Democrats took the opportunity to attack Ryan’s proposed 2015 federal budget, which would give states more control over how they use welfare while cutting Obamacare funds.

“Addressing these issues requires resources,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “Our colleagues proposed a budget that deeply cuts all those resources.”

Republicans like Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, disagreed that the government needs more programs: “People can help better than, in many cases, the federal government.”

Outside Washington, the Christian nonprofit Jobs for Life uses relationships to help people escape poverty permanently. The group based in Raleigh, N.C., uses a training program to help the poor find jobs—but it doesn’t believe work is the final answer.

“Just getting a job doesn’t necessarily change the way people feel about themselves,” said David Spickard, the president of Jobs for Life. “They need to know who they are, that they’re valuable, that they’re worthwhile. That’s a heart issue.”

The organization focuses on identity, character, and community so people can actually stay in their jobs once they get them. When WORLDprofiled Jobs for Life for the 2006 Hope Awards, it had only 38 locations. In 2013, about 4,700 people graduated from 275 sites in 9 countries, and 60 to 70 percent of program graduates are pursuing some kind of degree.

Instead of creating more federal programs, Spickard would like the government to urge churches to step up and help those in need. He said a few local governments already help Jobs for Life sites around the United States.

“Oftentimes, we in the faith community feel like that’s the government’s role,” Spickard told me. “I continue to encourage local church congregations in particular to see themselves as part of the solution.”

Rikki Elizabeth Stinnette Rikki is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD contributor.

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