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The Movement

Posted by griffithd on July 9, 2019 at 9:20 AM

The Movement

I work at a one of the oldest social service agencies in Philadelphia. For 150 years we have run to the fire and served some of the most vulnerable individuals in our City. The elderly, the homeless, youth, individuals and families experiencing poverty and deep poverty, many over generations. There is no question that our work saved lives, improved immediate situations, and eased the pain of being in crisis when no obvious solution was apparent. For many social service agencies this is the hallmark of our work. Yes, we run to the fire, but the brutal reality is we rarely put out the fire for good. To be cold, but honest, the system is set up to maintain people who are in poverty. 

The reasons are many. The way out of poverty for individuals who do not experience mental health and addiction challenges, is a job at a living wage with affordable benefits. Many in poverty are working, but not at a living wage and many are part time with no benefits. We know the barriers. Available living wage jobs require skills that are not being acquired in our educational system. Access to quality education and skills based training is a challenge when slots are limited if available at all. When basic needs of housing, wellness, transportation, and security, are everyday challenges and the associated crisis they cause, focusing on getting the training, education, let alone access to employment opportunities, is overwhelming for most individuals. Even when an individual can acquire the skills and is qualified, is the access to the available opportunity available?

Henry Ford famously said the he wanted to pay his workers enough that they could afford his cars. Where are the jobs that allow individuals in poverty to not only lift themselves out of poverty, but to become consumers and in turn an engine for growth? Pew cites that a family in poverty, when the administrative overhead is considered, cost the government over $60,000/ year. 15% of America lives below the poverty line. That line is significantly below what is defined as a living wage. The issue of poverty in America is much larger than we want to acknowledge. One hears in the current election cycle the rumble of social unrest. All of us need to listen to that rumble.

All of which brings me to a fundamental question. Do we as a society continue to maintain individual in poverty or do we look in the mirror, do we consider our collective faith traditions and their common teachings of compassion and respecting the dignity of every individual, do we look at the cost, both financial and other, of the current approach, and do we call for, pay for, individually act for, a fundamental change?

At ECS in our small way we have said we will be an agent for change. We are implementing programs based on the best available brain science and research that take individuals and through coaching and financial incentives help them navigate the system and get them access to opportunity that they can participate in and in turn give them economic mobility. With the impact to break the cycle of poverty. This we are doing along with some 120 other agencies across the country and the results confirm the approach. Together we have said we want out of the maintenance approach and to focus on those actions that drive sustainable change in individual’s lives.

However, the challenge of intergenerational poverty requires a much more fundamental response. It requires a movement that has political and financial muscle. It requires first education as to the real issues, it requires a commitment to jobs at a living wage, it requires a willingness to invest at scale in living wage jobs and the associated training and education. It requires that we acknowledge we are a diverse nation and we need to lift all boats, not just a few. The movement needs to be a national one, and needs to drive public policy that incents job creation at living wage levels and not individual greed. The social algebra of 20% of Americans becoming consumers on par, drives growth and revenue which in turn drives investment. The movement needs political leadership that acts in the interest of the nation, not just a party. The movement needs to not only claim the moral high ground during your worship or spiritual practice, but to act every day to drive inclusive growth. The movement needs to understand that one’s self interest starts with consideration of your neighbors. The movement needs to acknowledge that this is uncomfortable work, but vital work if we are to leave a legacy to our grandchildren of which we can be proud. As a nation we need to get out of the maintenance game and into the change game. The American dream is about access to opportunity. The movement is about access for all.

Fundamentally, the movement needs you.

And if we are honest and we walk with the carpenter from Bethlehem, we need the movement.


Categories: ECS Outreach, Muddy Boots, Leadership

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