Republicans begin to confront poverty at the grassroots

Font Size:

The week the Census Bureau reported that the number of people in the United States living in poverty is at its highest level since 1993, the Republican Study Committee and Washington-based Center for Neighborhood Enterprise wrapped up their two-day Anti-Poverty Summit on Capitol Hill.

Launching an initiative focused on listening to real-world, community-based solutions to poverty, a coalition of Republican lawmakers headed by Florida Republican Rep. Steve Southerland heard from grassroots leaders who have successfully confronted the challenges of poverty in their own communities — with a message focused on the establishment of long-term relationships with those in need and a rejection of easy “handouts” without expectations.

Southerland, surrounded by about a dozen community summit participants, explained at a Thursday press conference in front of the Capitol that the purpose of the summit was to begin a process of learning what works so that when lawmakers begin crafting policy they have a better foundation to solve the problem. The Florida congressman added that Congress “doesn’t have the luxury of appropriating dollars for programs that don’t work any more.”

“The status quo isn’t necessarily working. What they are doing out on the streets working with families, working with communities is making a difference. So that is what we want to learn about, because it is about learning how to save money and ways to better use taxpayer dollar but most importantly it’s about figuring out ways we can help people,” RSC Chairman Jim Jordan added.

“Compassion without expectations equals enablement,” Jordan said, pointing out a line from the conference that had stood out to him.

Summit leader Robert Woodson, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and a veteran of the civil rights movement, explained how he came to realize that “race alone” is not the chief barrier to betterment, but poverty and disadvantage, which led him to work on behalf of all low-income people.

“I also recognize that America is a very compassionate country, but our strategies over the last 50 years have not only not improved a lot of poor people, but in many ways have injured with a helping hand,” Woodson said, noting that traditionally the government has conducted what he called “failure studies” on the poor, in which they tally up the social ills such as dropout rates and illegitimacy, only to have well-intentioned government leaders try to fix the problem with ham-handed solutions.

“They ask not which problems are solvable, but which problems are fundable,” Woodson said.

Woodson’s center is focused on finding out how people are achieving success in their communities, so that those methods are implemented elsewhere — “if you wanted to learn to play the piano would you go to five people who failed and say ‘let me learn from your failure’? Or would you go to the one person who has mastered the instrument?” he asked.

The Center for Neighborhood Enterprise has trained over 2,500 grassroots leaders in 39 states to work in their own communities to help give people the tools to get out of poverty.

In an interview with The Daily Caller after the press conference, Woodson elaborated that there are many practical ways to restore a person in poverty.

“Conditions should be placed on any aid anyone gets, so that is a fundamental principle — and not assume that just because people have needs doesn’t mean they should be given rewards,” Woodson said. “And so that is the fundamental to what we are doing. We are also encouraging non-governmental ways to help people that increase one-on-one contact.”

Summit participant Shirley Holloway, founder and CEO of House of Help City of Hope, focused on the importance of expectations, admitting wrongdoing and accepting faith and betterment.

Holloway, who has been working with the impoverished for nearly 20 years, told TheDC that government programs like housing subsidies, food stamps and social services are not always the solution and in some cases have acted as enablers to keep people in poverty.

“It’s compassion without expectation, and when you have compassion without expectation that means you feel for a person but you’re not requiring them to do anything,” Holloway said. “In my program, I require you to get up, take care of your children, make sure they get their medical treatment. I require you to get up and plan for your life, what are you going to do in the next six months, next five months? We give them accountability, chores, taking care of your basic needs.”

“What we’ve got to understand is, the government doesn’t have the answers, the hospitals don’t have the answers, the mental institutions don’t have the answers, so what are we going to do?” she continued, explaining that when the money and temporary assistance dries up elsewhere, people go to her organization for help.

Pastor Rsen Ortiz of the ROC School of Urban Ministry stressed the importance of mentorship, consistent relationships and responsibility for at-risk young people.

Ortiz told TheDC that his students later become mentors to new entries to the program.

“It is not only teaching them how to fish, but also how to get their own pond,” he said.

While a number of faith-based leaders participated in the summit, the initiative was not centered on faith, but rather a grassroots mindset to overcoming poverty.

According to the RSC, the initiative will be centered around outreach to community leaders, research, and eventually policy solutions.

Follow Caroline on Twitter