The Surprising Cost of Ignoring Poverty

Deal with the issue now, or pay double later on.

Posted Jul 30, 2013

Do we want to find a solution for poverty? Or, continue to ignore the problem as if we are passing just another homeless man on the street? Some may say it is socialist thinking to achieve balance by taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Yet, when you consider the taxes we pay to finance the highest incarceration rate of any industrialized nation, you realize that in some ways this scenario is already happening. We can either deal with the issue head on, or pay double the cost later on.

Those who have fewer opportunities for upward mobility include those with less education, in poverty, living in inner cities, impoverished crime neighborhoods, and those who lack job skills because of mental illness, substance abuse, and PTSD. People who have multiple risk factors are more likely to take things into their own hands to survive and make a living by stealing or selling drugs. It is one of the few cottage industries left in America. This is not a justification for those that engage in criminal activities, but a place to look for answers.

Almost everyone who escapes poverty does so through education and the support of family and communities. Public assistance without education and support just perpetuates the problem – regardless of whether it’s for Caucasian, African American, Asian, or Hispanic. The problem is partially race, and how suspicious we are of other races, but it is also about how much support one has to claw his or her way out of poverty.

The sentiment of people who oppose providing assistance typically goes, “Let them get it the way I got it – the hard way. It is survival of the fittest.” I disagree. It is survival of those with the best education, family and community support, opportunities for employment, and mental health and substance abuse services. We rely on others for success.

We fund much of our infrastructure and services though taxes. Money for infrastructure and services in poverty ridden cities and rural areas suffer from a reduced tax base. Look at the bankruptcy of Detroit for an example. Schools are funded by local real estate taxes. When the value of real estate drops, base funding for schools drops, as well. Therefore, money available for such important endeavors is limited in areas with large sections living in poverty in rental or public housing.

Poverty areas hold some of the the largest pockets of mental illness, substance abuse and PTSD, but have the least funds to support treatment programs. Many of the worst performing schools are in inner city poverty areas and this is where we need the best education and the most treatment services. Funding for such services MUST be universally available and high quality. Without it, the U.S. will continue to be one of the most violent countries among industrialized nations. What kind of reputation is that?

According to the Federal Register, the average cost in 2011 for the incarceration of a federal inmate was $28,893. The average cost for an inmate in a community corrections facility was $26,163. In some states, such as Connecticut and Washington, the costs can go up to $50,000 to $60,000 per year. When you consider that there are currently about 1.5 million people behind bars, many of whom are serving multi-year sentences, you see how quickly the costs add up.

Segregation between the “haves and have nots” is part of the problem. Folks in poverty are often out of sight from those with higher incomes, so they don’t get to know, learn from, or help each other. Unless we make mixed-income housing areas more of reality, as is happening with Montgomery Housing Partnership in Silver Spring, MD, the richer will always be suspicious of the poor and vice versa. Mixed housing also means that schools and communities will improve. A varied tax base means that schools will be better supported. It is not only the integration of races we fear, but integration of varied income and educational levels.

Rather than dealing with issues after they grow into a real problem, we need to focus on PREVENTION early on. Poverty areas should get greater funding for schools and treatment programs from State and the Federal Government. Preschool programs with parental involvement have been proven to reduce later delinquency and risk of violent behavior. Well-placed Federal Grants or loans are needed to help those in Detroit have a better path to success.

Along with that, school-based mental health, substance abuse, and social services are needed to make the youth more successful in school. One principal in Baltimore, MD allowed community services to use space in an unused part of the school for free, that way services were readily available to children and families. This is the type of outside-the-box thinking that we really need.

It’s time to stop ignoring the cost of poverty. By mentoring children and young adults, we can lessen crime and incarceration in the future. If we can put our suspicion aside and overcome the barriers of race and income, we can achieve a better future. It would require us to do things differently at first, but the results would be incredible as we raise a healthier and more stable society.

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–Dr. Kathy Seifert

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