Poverty Reduction: A Tough Row to Hoe for Policymakers

Homeless man sits on streetThis week, representatives from numerous national human services groups in the United States, including Goodwill®, participated in a discussion about a complex challenge that Americans have struggled to address for generations – how do we improve opportunities for people who have economic disadvantages?

While the language we have used over the years has evolved from “poverty reduction and safety nets” to “economic mobility and opportunities,” such conversations inside the Beltway often visit and revisit the following two persistent challenges and implicated federal- level policy recommendations.

  • Programs and resources are fragmented, often overlap, and operate in silos; therefore, policymakers should enact legislation that fosters increased collaboration.
  • Public funding is limited and dwindling for programs that aim to lift people and families out of poverty; therefore, policymakers should protect funding for these programs.

Let’s set the politics aside for a moment to look at Congress from a systemic perspective in order to examine why it enacts laws that perpetuate an underfunded and fragmented poverty-reduction system.

As far as money is concerned, an ever-growing list of national priorities are emerging  as the world’s economy has become more competitive and complex. Because increasing cash flow is difficult (growing the economy and closing tax loopholes) or unpopular (raising taxes), Congress struggles to determine how to stretch a flat budget in order to pay for both existing and new priorities. This sets the stage for a yearly argument about robbing Peter to pay Paul.

On to fragmentation:  as our Government 101 teachers told us, committees do the heavy lifting in Congress.  Each committee has a defined jurisdiction that limits the scope of the legislation it may produce. The more committees involved in drafting legislation, the harder it becomes to advance a bill.

As a result of this basic structure, committees often advance legislation and Congress passes laws that are limited to a single committee’s jurisdiction. Consequently, programs continue to be fragmented. Short of wholesale Congressional restructuring and reform (never going to happen), or an overwhelming appetite to pass a massive multi-committee bill (rare and risky), the poverty-reduction system will continue to be underfunded and fragmented to some extent.

As the cliché states, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” Goodwill is working to develop different approaches to providing opportunities for people and families who are economically disadvantaged. And perhaps through the process and in partnership with other like-minded stakeholders, we will disrupt that status quo.