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September 19, 2012

Listening to Local Voices on Poverty

By and

When the Obama administration announced it will waive the work requirement in welfare reform, it wasn't just a bad idea that will roll back one of the most celebrated reforms of the last 25 years.

The move over the summer to allow waivers of the work requirement -- the work in "workfare" -- also showed disregard for the leaders of some of the nation's poorest communities. These leaders had cried out against the corrosive effects of the old welfare system on neighborhoods, families and the spirit of individual responsibility.

Their testimonies to the destructiveness of government dependence played an important part in shaping welfare reform. In 1995, they formed a task force charged by House Speaker Newt Gingrich with informing the legislative effort to reform the old welfare system.

Known as the Grassroots Alternatives to Public Policy initiative, the reform-minded community leaders called for tough time limits and work requirements on welfare benefits. These became central principles in the law Congress enacted in 1996.

As a result of that historic reform, welfare rolls dropped by half, and poverty among black children fell to its lowest level on record in America as families moved to independence from the welfare state.

Despite that success, there is much more to be done. That's why a new generation of grassroots leaders came to Washington on Sept. 12-13 for an antipoverty summit. The 25 leaders met with today's welfare reformers in Congress, led by Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., and other members of the Republican Study Committee, in conjunction with the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and The Heritage Foundation.

These neighborhood leaders from across the nation have addressed effectively the most entrenched problems of poverty in many of America's most devastated communities. Their approach promotes principles of personal responsibility, reciprocity and opportunity with a goal of empowering families to achieve upward mobility and, ultimately, self-sufficiency.

In our nation's capital, they told members of Congress how they achieved their victories, explained what resources and support could help replicate their programs on a larger scale and identified policy barriers that block greater success.

The strategies of these leaders, who live in the impoverished neighborhoods they serve, stand in sharp contrast to the conventional approach to fighting poverty. That approach fosters dependency and has absorbed almost $20 trillion of taxpayers' money since President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty in the mid-1960s. Today, government spends nearly $1 trillion a year on 80 federal programs for the poor.

What's the return on investment?

At the outset of the War on Poverty, 8 percent of children overall were born outside marriage each year. Labor Department official Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- later elected to the U.S. Senate from New York -- was rightly alarmed that one out of every four black children was born out of wedlock.

Today, the overall "unwed birth rate" has shot to 41 percent, and among blacks a staggering 72 percent of children are born to single mothers.

The Census Bureau, releasing its annual poverty numbers Sept. 12, said the nation's official poverty rate in 2011 held steady at 15 percent, with 46.2 million Americans in poverty. It's bad news, even after three consecutive years of increases. But even worse is the persistently high level of poverty in good economic times or bad, particularly among children.

The strongest factor in child poverty is absence of marriage. Overall, marriage reduces the probability of child poverty by more than 80 percent.

If we want to fight poverty and welfare dependence, it's urgent that we restore marriage. Reviving marriage in communities where it largely has collapsed is a major issue to be addressed by the neighborhood leaders as they gather with congressional leaders.

More than a decade ago, the late Michael Joyce, president of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, addressed members of Congress on why it was critical to hear from such grassroots leaders:

"(T)here's no better place to learn the language of civic renewal than from those who are actually doing it," Joyce said, because "they capture and convey to the public the ideal of a revitalized civil society, as our best means to protect even the most vulnerable, to tackle even the toughest problems."

He added: "They are full of the practical wisdom that comes from working every day with real people in the neighborhoods on real problems."

Joyce's message -- "listen to these folks," he urged -- continues to be sound advice for civic leaders and citizens across America as we face unprecedented economic and social challenges.

Jennifer A. Marshall is director of domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation. Robert L. Woodson Sr. is president and founder of the Washington-based Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

First moved on McClatchy-Tribune news wire.

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