Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Of Poverty and Civil Society

Josh Good


September 16, 2011
by Josh Good

The U.S. Census Bureau made headlines this week in reporting that in 2010, another 2.6 million Americans slipped into poverty, bringing the total to 42.6 million, the highest number in the last half-century. 

But in reporting that nearly one in six Americans now live “in poverty,” the report fails to assess the effectiveness of federal spending on poverty alleviation—or provide insights into the basic quality of life of low-income Americans.  Living in a Northeast Washington, DC, row house, my family and I personally have been challenged by this dynamic: we live next-door to a family with eight children, two of whom have their own children.  The family has two televisions, a microwave and full kitchen, publicly subsidized housing, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) monthly income, food stamps, child support and numerous other income supports … and a never-married, unemployed 38 year-old mother. 

A well-timed new report from the Heritage Foundation sets this reality into broader national context, providing a surprising overview of the living conditions of most “poor” Americans:  80 percent of poor families have air conditioning; approximately two thirds have at least one DVD player and cable or satellite TV; nearly three forths have a car or truck; 96 percent of poor parents reported their children were never hungry because of inability to afford nutritious food; and only 6 percent of poor households were overcrowded.

Since low-income Americans experience better living conditions than the average poor family in the U.K., Sweden or France, we may suffer not so much from a lack of material goods as from a lack of marriage, father-presence, and constructive habits.  As the Heritage report argues, “welfare policy needs to address the causes of poverty, not merely the symptoms, […particularly] the collapse of marriage and erosion of the work ethic” that, despite important reforms in 1996, are often still abetted by our welfare programs. 

One hopeful line on the horizon has been the federal government’s support for civil society organizations promoting healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood in the lives of poor Americans.  In several hundred settings nationwide, local faith-based and community organizations are using these grants to help the needy by providing relationships training, fatherhood training, and classroom-based training, including job-training. 

Despite small-scale local successes in numerous places, we have much work to do:  more than 24 million of America’s children, including more than 64 percent of African-American children and 36 percent of Hispanic children, currently live in father-absent homes.  We know that children without a father at home are five times more likely to remain poor, illustrating that for kids without a dad, economic realities typically follow cultural-relational realities, not the other way around. 

After five years’ funding, these programs will come to their end on September 30th.  As the Obama Administration anticipates some different priorities in the next cycle of grants, we should continue to support fruitful partnerships between government and non-profit organizations, as the Center’s foundational guideline reminds us.  In different ways than many bureaucratic programs, these voluntary associations led by grassroots leaders—called “little platoons” by Edmund Burke—are personally supporting neighbors in need, often assisted by volunteers who mentor and support participants.  These programs are committed to strengthening the internal family dynamics that most significantly shape children’s lives—marriage and fatherhood.  And one family at a time, the initiative is working:  to cite one 7 year-old boy from Detroit, formerly separated from his incarcerated father who participated in a fatherhood program, “I want to wear a tie and brown leather shoes and go to work just like daddy.”

At $150 million per year, the price tag of this current marriage and fatherhood initiative is less than one percent of the cost of the TANF program, and less than a quarter of a percent of what we spend each year on food stamps.  In the coming months our leaders must begin significantly trimming massive entitlement programs we can no longer afford. As we do, we should be guided by the still-emerging lessons of these civil society relationships programs for poor Americans, as well as by the Center’s guideline which reminds us that a core responsibility of government is to respect and “uphold the integrity and social viability of families [and] strengthen marriage.”

—Josh Good is a Technical Specialist at ICF International, where he has served as a strategy consultant to Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood programs for the last four years.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”