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The poor need more

| Tuesday, October 7, 2014

South central Elkhart is a diverse neighborhood just south of the downtown business district. Violent crime is fairly common, and police lights and sirens can be expected almost any night of the week. Transitions between the south side of Chicago and Elkhart are typical, and many of the poor in the area have family staying in the Windy City. After eight weeks of living and working directly with impoverished people in the area, I learned that poverty is so much more than a lack of financial resources. Poverty means an absence of almost any resources: academic opportunity, knowledge of job posting information or even familial support structures. When combating poverty in the United States, we must take into account all of these factors before committing finite means to a potentially futile course of action.

The most basic resource for someone in poverty is an education. As a college student, I take it for granted that I took the ACT, graduated from high school and (hopefully) look forward to employment. For students in some of the worst public schools in the country, all of this is in doubt. For them, it isn’t the GRE that concerns them, but getting a GED.

I worked at an adult education center for much of my time in Elkhart, creating curriculum and tutoring students seeking their GED. No student came to the center the same way, but most had a similar reason for being there: a GED provided them with more economic opportunity. The emphasis on education is part of Indiana’s welfare housing system but should be more broadly implemented on a national scale. Obtaining a high school equivalency degree is a nearly universal requirement for consistent employment and can be the difference between someone being a long- or short-term welfare recipient. An important additional benefit is the pride and hope that students spoke about instilling in their own communities. Several students said a major factor for them in seeking their GED was how it would affect those around them. Any action that offers hope to breaking the cycle of poverty should be relentlessly pursued.

The deprivation of resources extends beyond money and schooling, however. The rest of my time in Elkhart was spent working for a unique non-profit called Soup of Success (SOS). Its mission statement, “Empowering women to make positive changes,” encapsulates a holistic approach to providing resource education. Ten to 15 women go through a rigorous 20-week program that includes financial management education, conflict resolution counseling and manufacturing training. Most of the funding for the program comes directly from soup packet sales that the women make and sell themselves.

SOS provides the type of resources that are needed to escape from the eternal treadmill of poverty. It provides access to the government resources and programs that exist to obtain entry-level employment or complete basic education. More importantly, however, it provides the participants with the understanding of how to use those economic resources and manage their own lives in a way that minimizes the chaos that would otherwise control their actions.

Non-profits and other organizations willing to combat the root causes of poverty should be the rule, not the exception. A GED, relevant abilities and soft skills are all critical tools for a person to have when trying to enter the job market. Despite the upfront cost of providing the resources for people to attain these qualifications, it would be beneficial to any community to improve the long-term stock of all of its impoverished citizens. These services are critical to people trying to permanently find their way out of poverty, especially in this slow economy. There needs to be an emphasis on making sure people are aware of the opportunities available to them and expanding the offering to include a holistic approach to combating poverty.

It is one thing to provide food stamps and Section 8 housing to those who have nowhere to turn, but it is a much more hopeful — and successful — mission to teach and make available the resources that would allow individuals and communities to climb the socio-economic ladder. The place for welfare programs is critical, but when policy makers consider how to alleviate poverty in the long run, their focus should be on providing resources that grow the potential of the recipient in every way. A GED, computer training or even a bank account could change someone’s life forever. When poverty again makes it onto the political agenda, politicians should look to prepare people for a long future by providing resources that last a lifetime.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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