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As Congress Debates US Poverty, Relief Group Provides Services

  • Cindy Saine

Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in the United States, some 46 million Americans - about 15 percent of the population - are living in poverty. On Capitol Hill, Republican and Democratic lawmakers disagree about the effectiveness of government programs aimed at helping those in need.

In Washington, Bread for the City is providing food, medical aid and legal services under one roof. George Jones is chief executive officer:

"Probably one in three families in the District lives in poverty. So, even though this region is one of the wealthiest regions in the country, there are literally 200,000 people in Washington, DC living in poverty, in a city of 600,000 people," said Jones.

Not far away on Capitol Hill, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, the chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee, says the government is losing the war on poverty.

“I think we can all agree that Washington isn’t making anybody proud these days. Right now, the federal government spends nearly $800 billion a year on 92 different programs to fight poverty. Yet the official poverty rate is the highest in a generation," said Ryan.

Some advocates agree with Ryan, saying government programs can actually perpetuate a cycle of poverty, while private industry can change people's lives forever by giving them jobs. Robert Woodson is the president of the relief group Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. He says the government has created a whole industry of those who service the nation’s poor.

“Seventy percent of all the dollars over the years that we have spent on the poor goes to those who serve poor people," said Woodson.

Most Democrats disagree, and blast House Republicans for passing a budget that would slash spending on domestic programs that benefit the poor, such as Medicaid. At Bread for the City, client Mark Smith Sims said cuts in Medicaid would be devastating for him and many others.

"It would mean actually having to live in pain, because when you are in a situation where you have no other place to go for medical treatment, pain is a lot worse, and it disrupts every other aspect of your life," said Sims.

Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus have criticized Congressman Ryan for remarks he made about a culture in inner cities that he says does not value hard work. Ryan met with the caucus, and Congressional Black Caucus Chair Marcia Fudge told reporters it was a start.

“We appreciate Chairman Ryan coming to our meeting. [We] did not get a whole lot accomplished, but we do agree on a number of things. One is that we are both concerned about the poverty in this country. We just disagree on how we address the problem," said Fudge.

George Jones of Bread for the City says lawmakers may be asking the wrong question:

"The question really is not whether or not these government programs have worked. The question is how bad would things be if we had not enacted these sort of progressive programs," he said.

As the poverty debate continues in Washington, Bread for the City and other food pantries around the country will continue to help one person at a time.