I recently gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute talking about a better approach to the problem of growing poverty in America. I gave the speech on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson declaring a war on poverty.
Despite this war on poverty and many federal government efforts, 47 million Americans are still living below the poverty line today and “deep poverty”—those making less than 50 percent of the poverty line—is at record levels. To change that, I think we have to look beyond the political positions of the Left and the Right and address the underlying problems that make poverty so insidious and persistent.
A lack of commitment is not the problem; according to some measures U.S. taxpayers have invested over $15 trillion on poverty reduction programs. The single most important thing is to get the economy moving again through pro-growth policies. But while necessary, that’s not sufficient. Even though I believe a job is poverty’s greatest enemy, simply creating more economic growth is only the beginning. Someone who is in the clutches of drug addiction, who has been in and out of prison, who dropped out of school and has no real skills, they tend to be left behind, no matter how much the economy grows.
To tackle poverty, we also have to go to where it starts—in our communities, in our homes, and in our families. What we need now are not more top down, federal government-mandated programs, but what I call “constructive conservatism”—applying conservative principles to the problems of our day in a pragmatic, commonsense way, tackling issues from the bottom up instead of the top down, applying evidence-based best practices that are tested and work.
One example is fighting drug abuse and addiction. Where the so-called war on drugs has not been effective, one approach has: focusing on prevention and education, treatment and recovery at the local level, and applying evidence-based best practices. What has worked is grassroots community coalitions, like the one I started in Cincinnati in 1996. There are now 2000 similar coalitions operating around the country, supported by legislation I drafted, the Drug Free Communities Act that provides short-term, matching grants to evidence-based community programs. States have been called the laboratory of Democracy; these coalitions are the laboratory of drug addiction prevention and treatment. They are on the ground, getting their hands dirty. They are seeing what works and what doesn’t. By using scientifically proven approaches to prevention and treatment, the coalition has seen tremendous success, with a 30 percent reduction of adolescent substance abuse in the Greater Cincinnati area alone.
We also have to do a better job of leveraging our criminal justice system to treat addiction instead of punishing it. As many as 85 percent of people who go through the criminal justice system struggle with drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, which in turn drives high recidivism rates—what we call it when someone recently released from prison ends up right back in jail. When people are in and out of prison, it means more crime, more fathers and mothers who are not in their kids’ lives, more broken families—and since families are the heart of any community—more broken communities as well.
A decade ago, I authored the Second Chance Act, which provides matching federal funds for proven state and local reentry programs that focus on drug treatment, mental illness counselling, and job training. In the states that have taken advantage of Second Chance, we have seen significant reductions in recidivism—down double-digits in Ohio alone. Now I am proposing legislation that would apply the same proven methods in reentry to federal prisons—the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act.
Finally, we also cannot forget about the vulnerable kids who are growing up in difficult situations today, particularly when it comes to the horrible crime of sex trafficking. The U.S. Department of Justice says that approximately 300,000 children are at risk of being trafficked and exploited. This is a crime that preys on children who are made vulnerable by situations outside of their control. I’ve worked with a number of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the Senate since I founded the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking with Senator Richard Blumenthal, and now I have a bill that has passed the Senate Finance Committee with Senator Ron Wyden called the Child Sex Trafficking Data and Response Act to ensure we do a better job of helping these kids who have been victimized.
All of these reforms are simple and they are bipartisan, but they can make a world of difference in the lives of millions of Americans who are struggling today to pull themselves out of poverty. They can also help put us back on a path where community institutions and community leadership is our foundation, where government is in support of approaches that work, not dictating solutions from above. Every step we take down that path from here, every success we have, we aren’t just saving lives, we are restoring the hopes and the dreams of millions today and millions more yet unborn. And that is something worth fighting for.
Senator Rob Portman