A Worthy Anti-Poverty Experiment In Central Florida

Matt Vespa
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Posted: May 21, 2015 9:50 AM
A Worthy Anti-Poverty Experiment In Central Florida

State are the laboratories for democracy–and what better way to put that framework to good use than test out new ways to fight poverty. Texas has proven to be a leader in justice/prison reform. In Orlando, Florida, the Community Food and Outreach Center (CFOC) is looking for a solution to break the cycle of dependency and making sure Americans, who might be down on their luck, have full bellies, a sense of self-worth, dignity, and have the training capable to putting themselves back on the right track towards a better future.

Typically, the road to dependency starts with handouts in either food or clothing. That short-term need is met, but charitable giving isn’t a consistent base of support. It’s a resource that eventually becomes depleted. The individual continues to struggle, limping on through government assistance. Now, there are some in Washington D.C. who thinks that’s a good thing; more people dependent on government is a surreptitious–and craven–way of enhancing political power.

At CFOC, they offer much more than just affordable food. Individuals are given a case manager who gives them the guidance and training needed to set these individuals on the right path. That training includes skills to obtain a job, life skills, crisis care, and continued mentoring to make sure these individuals find the exit to self-sufficiency.

Through collaborative partners, who are listed on CFOC’s website, emergency housing, utility assistance, long-term housing, medical, and domestic abuse care are also included.

On their website, co-founder Scott George was motivated to do something about the working poor after seeing the many impoverished neighborhoods around Orlando. The city has the lowest median pay out of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. Central Florida also has the largest share of low-paying jobs in the country, with almost 40 percent living on less than $25,000 a year.

It’s programs like these that will constitute the blueprint for combating poverty in a sustainable fashion. We also cannot forget about faith-based groups who also have been major players in combating urban-based poverty.

Right now, one could say that there’s an empathy gap in politics, along with solutions being erased through partisan bickering. Commentary’s Noah Rothman, formerly of Hot Air, spoke about this at Americans for Prosperity’s Texas Online conference last year. In a panel discussion about culture, the conversation veered into Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comments, where Rothman noted that just because 47 percent of Americans are on some form of government assistance doesn’t mean they want to be there.

On May 12, Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute joined President Obama and Harvard Prof. Robert Putnam for a conversation about poverty in America. Not only did Brooks reiterate the points made by Rothman, he said that the social safety net is something that should be celebrated as an accomplishment of free enterprise–that we can provide some assistance to Americans we don’t even know since prosperity and wealth creation from the free market has been so great. At the same time, Brooks added that such a safety net should be reserved only for the truly destitute.

So how are we on the center right talking about poverty in the most effective way? Number one is with a conceptual matter. We have a grave tendency on both the left and the right to talk about poor people as “the other.” Remember in Matthew 25, these are our brothers and sisters. Jim Olsen and I have this roadshow -- we go to campuses and everybody wants to set up something, right-left debates, and it never works out, because it turns out we both have a commitment to the teachings of the Savior when it comes to treating the least of these, our brothers and sisters.

When you talk about people as your brothers and sisters you don’t talk about them as liabilities to manage. They’re not liabilities to manage. They’re assets to develop because every one of us made in God’s image is an asset to develop. That’s a completely different approach to poverty alleviation. That’s a human capital approach to poverty alleviation. That’s what we can do to stimulate that conversation on the political right, just as it can be on the political left.

One concept that rides along with that is to point out -- and this is what I do to many of my friends on Capitol Hill -- I remind them that just because people are on public assistance doesn’t mean they want to be on public assistance. And that’s the difference between people who factually are making a living and who are accepting public assistance. It's an important matter to remember about the motivations of people and humanizing them. And then the question is, how can we come together? How can we come together?

I have, indeed, written that it's time to declare peace on the safety net. And I say that as a political conservative. Why? Because Ronald Reagan said that; because Friedrich Hayek said that. This is not a radical position. In fact, the social safety net is one of the greatest achievements of free enterprise -- that we could have the wealth and largesse as a society, that we can help take care of people who are poor that we've never even met. It's ahistoric; it's never happened before. We should be proud of that.

But then when I talk to conservative policymakers, and say how should you distinguish yourself from the traditional positions in a marketplace of ideas from progressives, you should also talk about the fact that the safety net should be limited to people who are truly indigent, as opposed to being spread around in a way that metastasizes into middle-class entitlements and imperils our economy.

It seems in Central Florida, the “truly indigent” are also getting some great assistance from the Community Food and Outreach Center.