Last January marks the 52nd anniversary of the ‘War on Poverty’ that began with legislation introduced by President Lyndon B.  Johnson in 1964.  At that time the poverty rate in the United States was around 19 percent representing roughly 36 million people.  Unfortunately, since then we have made little progress in combating poverty.  In fact, while the population of our country has grown from 192 million in 1964 to over 320 million today, the real poverty rate has only modestly improved. Today, almost 15.4 percent or 48 million Americans live in poverty according the United States Census Bureau and that percentage hasn’t improved in over 40 years.   Florida’s poverty rate is slightly higher at 16.3 percent.  Citrus County’s poverty rate is roughly 17 percent which represents 24,000 individuals. These aren’t just statistics, they are our neighbors!  One could easily say that we are not winning the prolonged ‘War’.  The question is why?

American taxpayers have spent $22 trillion on the ‘War’ thus far, which is three times the cost of all the wars we fought in our history since the American Revolution combined.  Our return on investment has been abysmal and we need a new strategy if we are going to make progress and turn the tide.  Have we analyzed and understood ‘Poverty’ well enough to attack it effectively?

Sun Tzu said in his book, Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”   It sounds like a straight-forward, simple principal; however, with ‘Poverty’ we may be our own worst enemy.  Many of the initiatives and institutions we have set up to combat poverty have often been counterproductive.  All too often programs enable the poor to stay poor with little or no incentive and limited opportunity to improve their situation.  This has led to “generational poverty”, and we need to work to break that cycle.  Our society has become the great enabler, and we are defeating ourselves.

Education reform is the main key to combating the problem.  In his book Lessons of Hope – How to Fix Our Schools, Joel Klein, who served as chancellor of the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Bloomberg, points out the need to “fix” education in order to “fix” poverty.  He believes that competition and school choice for all students should be an ultimate goal, and it’s vital to establish policies and programs that empower and enable principals to be the real leaders of their schools, instead of “puppets of the bureaucracy”.   I believe his book should be read by all legislators and policy makers involved with education, school board members, school superintendents, principals and anyone else who has a desire and opportunity to improve the formal education of our youth.  While I may not agree entirely with all of Mr. Klein’s ideas, both of us believe that if something is not working it needs to be changed!   And those innovators courageous enough to step out of the norm need to be ready to endure the slings and arrows of those who would either maintain the status quo or add yet another layer of bureaucracy to the mix hoping the bad could somehow be diluted into something good.  That just has not worked.

Education is critical if we want to prepare our youth for the future. It is perhaps the most important task a society has if it intends to perpetuate itself, and there is no more admirable profession than to be an educator of our youth.  We need to better enable them to do their jobs and compensate them adequately.  For brevity sake and your continued attention we’ll save a more elaborate expository on education reform for another commentary.  Suffice it to say the best predictors of the success of our education system are not numeric scores on some standardized assessment tests; but rather an improvement in the real unemployment rate, a decrease in crime, an increased standard of living, a healthier society with the associated flattening of the health care cost curve, and yes, a decrease in the poverty rate.

Another important key to combating poverty is welfare reform.   Some pundits believe that welfare reform is just another conservative tactic to withhold services and care from the poor and needy.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The primary purpose of welfare is to enable those who are able to climb out of difficult economic circumstances, not perpetuate them.  It was designed as a “safety net” whose function by definition is to stop a falling object from impacting the ground and being severely damaged.  Our system seems to be keeping too many people in the net instead of helping them get back on their feet.  Improving the system will require both structural and cultural alterations.

Structurally, we can start by doing a better job caring for the poor in our own communities.   Homelessness and hunger are major problems of the poor.   On any given day there are over 600,000 homeless people in our country, over 180,000 are children, over 57,000 are veterans,  and over 1000 are here in Citrus, Marion and Hernando Counties.  More than 66% of our public school children qualify for reduced or free lunch and breakfast.  Sadly, these may be the only descent meals these children receive during the week.  The Path of Citrus County has provided housing, food and vocational training to over 1500 people since their inception in 2001. They are currently involved in a capital expansion campaign to provide more housing and programs primarily for homeless women and children in our community.  Community Food Bank of Citrus Co. serves thousands of people each year in need of food.   Many local churches also do a wonderful job providing meals for those in need.   We should support these efforts as well as the efforts of all the other shelters and food banks and pantries which rely primarily on private donations to fund their operations.  Generosity begins at home and it is an honor and a privilege for all us to do our part to help those less fortunate.  It has always been the America way of neighbor helping neighbor.  We have an opportunity for our community to be an example to the rest of the State of how we can care for others in need.

For those individuals receiving government assistance in any form, we need to do a better job of asset testing, monitoring work search requirements and in some cases even requiring work for benefits perhaps through community service or public-private partnerships.  We need to improve vocational rehabilitation, better identify and control fraud and abuse associated with benefits, and dis-incentivizing unhealthy life habits.   More effective incentive-focused cigarette smoking cessation programs would be a great investment given the high health care costs associated with cigarette smoking related diseases.

Better management of EBT cards (food stamps) and their benefits are also very important.  It is a fallacy that eating healthy food is more expensive than eating unhealthy food.  We should provide simple, healthy, inexpensive sample meal plans and recipes for individuals receiving such benefits.  We should also perhaps consider limiting the type of foods available for subsidies, similarly to the WIC programs, and eliminating ‘junk’ foods.   Trust for America’s Health predicts that by 2030 60% of Florida’s population will be obese and treating those associated diseases will cost our state over $34 billion.  We need to reverse that trend for all of our sakes and it may require some difficult and initially contentious policies that may not be widely popular.  However, the time has come to put political correctness aside and do the right things for our fellow citizens.

Our culture is always evolving, and it is our responsibility to steer it in productive directions that will benefit the next generation.  I can think of no better way of improving our culture than improving family dynamics by putting more emphasis on the family unit with parents, particularly fathers, taking more responsibility for their children.  It is a statistical fact that children from fatherless homes are more likely to be poor, involved with drugs and alcohol, fail to finish high school, and develop health and emotional problems.  Crime and teen pregnancy is also much higher among these youths and the cycle often repeats itself into subsequent generations.  Education and early intervention in pre-teen years is critical if we hope to reduce this tragedy.  We can increase the penalties for “dead beat” dads or moms and better enforce those revised laws, but the affected children need the affection, attention, care, discipline and example from their parents often more so than any monetary support.   We need to teach our children at an early age to be respectful of authority and to be responsible for their actions and the associated consequences.   This needs to happen in the home and at school.   The definition of the family may be in flux in our society; however, our human nature has not changed and our children need direct parental involvement to develop psychologically and emotionally regardless of who lives where or with whom.  We are fortunate to have many ancillary programs that we can support: Citrus County Family Resource Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay, YMCA of the Suncoast, foster care, guardian ad-litem, adoption and others which are very important in assisting many needy children and families when their circumstances are sub optimal.  Our local churches and civic organizations also do a tremendous job in providing for children and  families in need.  We should support and assist them whenever we are able.

Effecting positive change is never easy and certainly defeating poverty has proven to be a very arduous and complicated endeavor, but it is a struggle we must continue to endure.  As we strive to refine our strategy, hopefully we’ll start making better progress.  We need to remember that we are responsible for the next generation and that is why it is incumbent on us to make hard and sometimes difficult choices.

To accomplish our objectives we need to be wise, compassionate and continue combating the apathy that is growing in our nation.  Truly, our country has no more powerful enemy than the apathy of its citizens.  It leads us to be self-centered and robs us of the volition to act altruistically.  It is self-defeating and indifferent and can only be overcome through our interest and participation in the lives and wellbeing of others.

President John F. Kennedy was correct and inspiring during his inaugural address in January 1961 when he talked about achieving difficult goals, “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” Today would be a good day to begin a new strategy for our War on Poverty.  A strategy where we support, expand and utilize more of what is working in our communities.  A strategy where we promote family values and emphasize family responsibilities so our children are nourished in mind, body and spirit.  A strategy where we revise and modernize our welfare system, so people have more opportunity and incentive to be independent, productive, and healthy members of our society.   And a strategy where we courageously strive to improve our education system, empowering educators to help produce responsible students with a lifelong desire for learning.   Working together we Americans can do amazing things…even change our world.

Ralph Massullo, MD