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Escaping from Poverty—Some Success Stories

July 1, 1990 -

The debate about poverty and its causes rages on. On the one extreme are those who blame all poverty and its attendant ills on an oppressive "system" and tightfisted governments. These are the principled believers in socialism and the welfare state, that is, a society in which everyone is ultimately dependent on the state for security and prosperity.

On the other extreme are those who are convinced that all government-operated support systems are by definition wrong and counterproductive. Individual self-reliance is held out as the only cure for poverty.

The state or the individual? This is the conflict between statists and extreme individualists. It is no wonder they cannot tolerate each other.

It is not possible to debate adequately, let alone resolve, the conflict between these two extreme positions. It should be obvious that there are some people who need help because they are totally dependent and without resources of their own, including abandoned mothers and children, old people and the handicapped. But it should also be obvious that the best way to escape poverty and squalor is for people to assume responsibility for themselves. This implies as a minimum that they avoid crime and drug addiction, and learn the value of honesty, loyalty and dependability.

Susan Mandel has listed seven American success stories ("Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands," National Review Special Supplement, May 28, 1990, pp.6S-8S) which amply demonstrate that people respond positively to opportunities for self and mutual help. A few of these are worth mentioning.

Focus Hope is a Detroit-area civil rights organization operating a machinist training program. Their goal is to help black men escape the underclass. Seven hundred trainees have been placed in well-paying auto-industry jobs. Many applicants who do not meet the minimum requirements (especially in math and reading skills) are helped to upgrade their skills. Focus Hope is also developing minority-owned businesses specializing in auto parts manufacturing. High Quality Manufacturing, staffed by former third-generation welfare mothers, recently received the Ford Motor Company's highest quality rating. It is expecting to do $4 million worth of business this year.

Parents against Drugs was organized by three women who lived in one of the worst drug-infested parts of Philadelphia. Drug dealers were terrorizing the community, even fire-bombing homes and killing children. At the women's initiative, the community began standing up to and defeating the violent drug dealers. As a result, residents gained confidence in resisting crime and soon wanted to do more to provide alternative activities, especially for the children of single welfare mothers who themselves are addicted to drugs. Neighbourhood volunteers now run a youth centre and help kids with their school work, sports activities and a variety of hobbies.

Step 13 in Denver is a program undertaken by four homeless men to help homeless people get back on their feet. This project is located in the middle of skid row and provides a way of escape for hard-core alcoholics. Residents must submit to a certain discipline, including an alcohol treatment program and a willingness to work. A recent study found that 35 per cent of the men in this program succeed in turning their lives around. Jack Williams is one of them. He now owns his own business after leaving Step 13 just two years ago.

Bethel Newlife is a small, poor, black church in a slum section of Chicago. The members of this church decided to do something about their neighbourhood, and began to raise money to purchase and renovate abandoned buildings into condominiums for low-income families. Residents, many on public assistance or making very low wages, can earn the down payment through "sweat equity" by doing some of the repair and construction work themselves. They take turns standing guard to prevent theft of equipment and materials. All of this has given the people courage and a new pride in their own efforts and the neighbourhood. So far this program has resulted in the rehabilitation of 80 co-ops and the building of 18 new houses. An additional 250 units are planned. The church has expanded its mission to include job training, health care and literacy. It even runs four businesses employing over 300 people. One spokesman for Bethel Newlife said, "We're trying to show that a community-owned and controlled social-services system is more effective and less costly than the government doing it."

Carol Sasaki was an unwed mother on welfare who started HOME (Helping Ourselves Means Education). She and other former welfare recipients began a support group to encourage other women on welfare to break out of dependency by means of further education. Today Ms. Sasaki is working on her PhD in international studies. The HOME network has reached 150,000 people in all 50 states. Ironically, when Ms. Sasaki first discussed pursuing her education with her welfare workers, they strongly discouraged her on the grounds that she wasn't "college material."

These stories are reassuring signs that even people in extremely adverse circumstances can overcome them if they put their minds to it and cooperate with others in the same situation. That surely must encourage all who wish for the upliftment of the poor and disadvantaged.