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If you want to help the poor, fix the safety net

A homeless woman tends to herself amid her belongings on a street in downtown Los Angeles, California, on January 8, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWNFREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
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Strengthening America’s middle class requires grappling with poverty. Too many low-income Americans are finding their path to the middle class blocked, as I detail in Chapter 3 of our Liftoff & Letdown series. I reported that story in Fort Worth, Tex., in part through the lens of a massive charity organization — Catholic Charities Fort Worth — which boasts the budget of a small city and serves 100,000 low-income people a year.

Heather Reynolds is the CEO of that group, and in recent years, she has steered it in an important direction. “Our end goal,” she said, “is changing from helping people to getting them out of poverty, and for good.”

Getting people out of poverty is much easier said than done. Reynolds and I exchanged e-mails this week on the question of how to do it — and what keeps people from doing it now.

Jim Tankersley: You see 100,000 low-income people a year at Catholic Charities Fort Worth. You’ve made it your mission to find ways to help them not come back – to get skills and jobs that pay well enough for them to get by without assistance. What do you find are the big things people need?

Heather Reynolds: What we see as the pressing need a family comes to us with is almost always financial — their utilities have been shut off, they received an eviction notice, or they cannot pay for a needed medication. However, when we assess them in a broader way, we quickly discover a depth of issues they face — whether it is low skills to get a living wage job, transportation issues, child-care issues, poor financial health including debt, damaged credit or pay day loans. How we aim to serve is compassionately and holistically.

First, we stop the bleeding by giving them the assistance they need, with their commitment to work with us. Then, we plug them into the services they need most that will impact the deeper issues that are present.

Tankersley: What keeps poor people poor? Are there traps in society, in the economy, in culture, in the way low-income people see and interact with the world?

Reynolds: This five-word question does not have an easy answer. There are lot of reasons that people live in poverty. Many aid programs in our nation do not incentivize people to move out of poverty. The more a family begins to earn, they drop off many benefits, yet their increased earnings aren’t yet sufficient to move them out of poverty. Many live in poverty because they do not have the skills to earn wages at a level that will provide adequately for their family. And, for some, it can be an issue of hope. Many people we serve don’t see a way out — they have no hope that life can be better. This is not a comprehensive list, just a few examples.

Tankersley: You deal with a lot of refugees – and they have a huge success rate, for finding work and getting ahead, right? Why is that? Why do so many immigrants from lesser circumstances come to America and regularly find success?

Reynolds: We do, and I am always so proud of the work our team does with our refugees. I would suggest two things — hope and services. When refugees arrive here, they come from horrific situations. But, many have dreamed about coming to America and have a mindset that anything is possible here. This hope they have from the start makes a big difference. Second is the way refugees receive services when they arrive. Refugees are served in a comprehensive, holistic way — they are given housing, ESL, employment services, financial assistance, school integration, cultural orientation, etc. There is not just one service they receive. They get comprehensive services that helps set them up for success.

Many aid programs in our nation do not incentivize people to move out of poverty.
— Heather Reynolds, Catholic Charties Fort Worth

Tankersley: What would you ask policymakers to change, to help more low-income people make that leap to a middle-class life?

Reynolds: When a family is on government programs, reduce their support incrementally, not in totality, as they begin to earn or earn higher wages. Don’t set up the system that when people are trying to move out of poverty that they have to become poorer before they can make it. For many we serve, this is an impossible choice, which leads people to never be able to change their situation.