Health & Social Policy

Re-thinking Poverty

U.S. welfare policy is based on short-term goals; most welfare programs provide short-term assistance but their ability to support upward movement in the labor market is limited. The reason for this is the way poverty is viewed and understood in the United States. For more effective policy we need a thorough understanding of what poverty is.

It is common to see people moving from one welfare program to another, becoming “dependent” on welfare. Critics allege that these programs create distortions in the labor market in the form of disincentives to work. Building on this argument some people advocate against welfare programs. From the standpoint of a society with deeply rooted beliefs in the power of the markets, these critics believe the cure to poverty (something viewed by many in the United States as a simple lack of income) is to participate in the market. Thus, programs creating distortions in the market are not good generally or for reducing poverty, as is understood by most.

Poverty, however, is not only lack of income; it is deprivation. It is multidimensional, and a policy to tackle it needs to be holistic. Health, nutrition, emotional and psychological well-being, access to clean drinking water, a healthy environment, happiness and rights are all things that determine what poverty is.

A welfare program with work requirements might force a participant to get a job that he does not enjoy. Does his lack of satisfaction, despite a boost in income, mean he is less poor? He will likely be an unmotivated worker who may now have a full belly but be unhappy with his circumstances. He will still feel deprived and helpless. In the long run he might be forced to stick to his job out of the need to support his family, but he also might quit and enroll in some other welfare program. Even if he chooses to stick with the job, he has little or no chance of getting promotions or raises because of his initial disinterest in the job and his probable lack of adequate skills.

Thus skill set building should be an integral part of any welfare program to help participants break the barriers to upward mobility. President Lyndon B. Johnson stressed education as a long-term tool for tackling poverty. Training, vocational skills and classes to improve general skills should be made mandatory in some programs. This could help participants have a better chance of getting out of poverty and, just as importantly, staying out of it. A more holistic approach, rather than focusing on helping the poor simply survive from day to day, would concentrate on the long term: improving their place in society through lasting impacts on their economic conditions.

To address some of the other aspects of a more holistic approach to poverty, two additional components need attention: advocacy and social mobilization. Eradicating dependency on welfare does not necessarily mean limiting welfare programs. Advocacy and counseling can help. The concept of social mobilization revolves around involving all stakeholders and empowering them by creating awareness.

Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan from the Orangi Pilot Project helped transform an informal settlement with poor living conditions in Karachi, Pakistan, by creating awareness and motivating the locals. He would sit among the community members and ask, “Do you see those flies and all that trash?” It took them a while to realize the conditions they were living in and even more time to realize that they could do something about it.

A program in which the stakeholders are involved is necessarily more successful than one that is prepackaged and presented to them. Khan helped the locals come together and realize their stake in their own betterment, empowering them to create change while advocating on their behalf to pave the way.

I close this article with words that have motivated me to pursue a degree in public affairs, and I want to share it with you, as we are all going to be policymakers in some capacity in the years to come.

“Let us sit down to eat, with all those who haven't eaten; let us spread great tablecloths, put salt in the lakes of the world, set up planetary bakeries, tables with strawberries in snow, and a plate like the moon itself from which we can all eat. For now I ask no more than the justice of eating.” From "The Great Table Cloth" by Pablo Neruda

Rehan Zahid

Rehan Zahid is first year student at the LBJ School interested in economic and social policy. He has an undergraduate degree in economics from the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan.


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