Fresh thinking about poverty

Published 9:51 pm Monday, March 10, 2014

By Joseph L. Bass

The approaches applied in the 50-year effort to overcome poverty in America have clearly failed. The poverty rate of 16 percent is still the same, and many social issues are worse than in the beginning, including the number of single-parent families, number of people in prison, murder rate among poor Americans, etc.

Top-down government programs have provided services that the poor were expected to benefit from but have not. What can we do about this?


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The first question we should ask includes the following. Previously did our government apply War on Poverty-type approaches to help Americans develop the jobs and wealth enjoyed by many today? The clear answer is no. War on Poverty approaches applied since the 1960s were different from anything attempted previously.

Maybe we should have applied the same approaches that worked earlier. Let us think about two approaches applied previously, involving bottom-up settlement and governmental development, and free or cheap land.

Consider the original Spanish/Mexican settlement of the American Southwest and the settlement of Canada. In both, government preceded settlers. Settlers arrived to live within a top-down governmental structure established before they arrived. But in the case of California and Texas, American settlers overthrew the Mexican governments and formed their own governments from the bottom up, just as was done by the 13 original colonies.

These were governments formed by the people, for the people, not governments by the government, for the government that represented a few rich aristocrats.

Europeans arrived in the Americas and took their free land from Native Americans. This was in the tradition of Jamestown, Daniel Boone and the like. The Mexican government allowed free or extremely cheap land, along with a promise of no property taxes for 10 years. Free or cheap land was provided, and settlers had to work and create their own wealth from it.

Having to create your own wealth or starve to death was a strong motivator. Obviously a great deal of wealth was created through this system.

How can we apply these approaches to America today? Certainly there isn’t the same availability of land as there was hundreds of years ago. But similar approaches can be considered. Government already owns low-rent housing projects, and government could purchase all Section 8 housing. All of this could be given free to current occupants with a promise of no property taxes for 15 years. Occupants could use the money they currently pay in rent to maintain what would now be their property.

Also, efforts could be extended to help people develop their own bottom-up community organizations, instead of governments forming top-down organizations that clearly have not helped people improve their lives.

Of course, there would be a great deal of resistance to repositioning current poverty efforts. Those with jobs in failed, top-down government efforts would object. Those who believe their mission is to protect failed government programs would object.

But by applying approaches that have worked in the past, there would be greater opportunities for the poor to strive to better themselves. Costly, failed, top-down government programs would be abolished, reducing the ever-increasing national debt. And those previously employed in failed government programs could redirect their efforts to the commercial sector, creating their own wealth and creating jobs for the previously poor.

Joseph L. Bass is the executive director of ABetterSociety.Info Inc., a nonprofit organization in Hobson. Email him at