When Welfare Fosters Dignity

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Latoya tried to tell her case worker that she was subject to seizures and could not work a regular job.  Her case worker at the welfare office told her to go anyway.  A few weeks later she suffered a seizure while at work, and her employer told her not to come back.

Latoya met with her case worker again.  “Your medical condition means that you cannot work.  If you cannot work, then you can no longer be part of this program.  You need to go to Social Security, they’re the ones that take care of people with disabilities.”

The next day, Latoya paid the bus fare to the Social Security office.  She explained what her case worker had said.  The intake officer told her that Social Security and welfare were two separate programs run by two different government agencies.  To get disability income, she would need to start the application process all over again.

“I’ve been going to that office for at least six months,” said Latoya.  “Every time I go, I give them all the records they ask for.  I think I’m done.  But when I come back the next time, they ask me for more.”

This governmental limbo has severe consequences for Latoya.  Unable to work, cut off from welfare, not accepted into the SSI system, she has no income.  She told me she’s number 28 on the list for a housing voucher, but if a place comes up for her and she has no income to pay for it, she’ll go back to the end of the line.  Without a home and without income, and with a history of drug addiction, the state decided that Latoya is not fit to be a mother and has placed her daughter in foster care.

The US and state governments together spend over a trillion dollars every year providing a range of means tested services for people living below the poverty line.  The largest of these is Medicaid, followed by the Earned Income Tax Credit (which is only available to those who have earned income), Food Stamps and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).  In total, the government deploys 89 separate anti-poverty programs spread across 14 different government departments.  To complicate things even further, each state has its own agencies for implementing some of these programs and can write its own regulations for many of them.

The support the government provides covers the full ranges of services a person might need to move out of poverty, including medical care, housing, food assistance, job training, childcare and education.  However, the huge volume of regulations, information, locations, reporting and communication required to participate in all of these different programs makes it unlikely that people can receive all of the benefits they qualify for, or coordinate these benefits in such a way that it helps them move out of poverty.

If you want to learn more about life on welfare in the US, here are two books I recommend: $2 a Day by Enid and Shaefer, and Flat Broke with Children by Hays.

A person who is homeless, as Latoya has been, has even greater difficulty navigating her way through all this bureaucracy.  Most homeless shelters require that everyone must vacate the shelter in the morning, and then queue up again to get a place in the shelter in the evening.  Shelter “residents” carry whatever assets they have with them during the day, because the shelters have no place to store them.


Like Latoya, Elizabeth has known poverty almost all her life.  She has limited education and has never held a formal job.  But Elizabeth’s experience with government aid has been much different.

When I met Elizabeth, she bounced her daughter on her knee as we talked.  After a year of receiving government assistance, Elizabeth no longer needed it.  She had joined with two others receiving assistance to start a business selling vegetables and other food items in a market stall.  She has been saving money regularly for over a year and now can borrow money whenever she has a financial emergency or an opportunity to improve her business.

Much of the difference between Latoya’s experience and Elizabeth’s can be attributed to differences in the way they receive aid from the government. 

  • Latoya must bounce from office to office to get the support she qualifies for.  Elizabeth has never been to an office.  She was identified by others in her community as a person in need of assistance, and then an aid worker came to her to verify that she did qualify for government support. 
  • Latoya’s program will disqualify participants if they have too many assets.  In Elizabeth’s program, the whole point is to help her build up assets so that she can use them to support herself.  In fact, Elizabeth and her business partners in the program received funds specifically designated for them to purchase the assets that needed to start their business. 
  • Until recently, Latoya was pretty much on her own navigating the bureaucracy and addressing her housing and health challenges.  Elizabeth has many layers of support built into her program.  She has joined with two other women in her business so that they can share the work, risk and profits.  She has a mentor that comes to her regularly, reviewing her progress and answering her questions.  She has a weekly support group where she learns business skills as well as family health, hygiene and financial management. 
  • Elizabeth’s support group also serves as an informal bank.  Every week members will save money together in a common fund.  They can borrow from this fund and pay back their loans over time.
  • Both Latoya and Elizabeth have received job training, but Elizabeth’s training came as she was running her business with her co-owners.  The lessons she learned could be applied directly and immediately.

One other key difference that I probably should have mentioned earlier.   Latoya lives on the West Side of Chicago.  Elizabeth lives in a rural village in Samburu County, Kenya.

I interviewed Latoya in Chicago about a month after I had interviewed Elizabeth and her colleagues in Kenya.  I was struck by the similarity of their needs and the differences in the approaches their governments used to address them.

Elizabeth receives support through an innovative pilot program of the Kenya National Safety Net.  This program combines two of the most successful approaches to poverty elimination – cash transfers (pioneered by the governments of Mexico and Brazil) and the graduation approach (created by BRAC in Bangladesh).  You can read more about these approaches here.

Welfare Designed to Help People Provide for Themselves

Elizabeth participates in a pilot of this combined approach in Kenya.  In Samburu County, where she lives, the county government has contracted with BOMA, an international development organization, to provide the graduation services.  BOMA helps in the process of selecting people living in ultra-poverty to join the program, then provides the training, organizes the regular savings group meetings and supplies the mentors, all the while tracking the progress of each participant.  The government provides a cash stipend so participants can feed their children during the first few months of the program (until their businesses start generating profits), and funds for them to buy assets for the business.

Elizabeth’s Support and Savings Group

While I was in Kenya, I met with the Deputy Governor of Samburu County, Julius Leseetho.  “We have had 30 years of government and donor projects and seen no change in the poverty levels in the county,” he told me.  “In the two years BOMA has been here we have seen 1,600 people move out of poverty.”

Learning from the Experts in Building Pathways out of Poverty

Western governments don’t look very often to the developing word for ideas on how to help people move out of poverty, but they should.  There is much more innovation and serious testing of models going on in countries with less income. 

Some Western government have begun to apply some of the lessons from programs that take place in Bangladesh, Mexico, Brazil and Ethiopia.  The government of Finland has been addressing homelessness since 1987.  Ten years ago they noticed that, while temporary homelessness had gone way down, long-term, persistent homelessness had not changed.  They came up with a radical idea to address these cases – give homes to those who were homeless.  It sounds obvious, but most anti-poverty programs insist that other issues, such as mental health, employment and addictions, be solved before a person receives a home.  Of course, it’s pretty hard for a person to address these problems when they don’t know where they are going to be sleeping each night.  Finland’s Housing First model demonstrates that homeless people have a much better chance of sorting out their other challenges once they have a stable home.

Finland has built 1,250 clustered housing units for the homeless, most of them built by the Y Foundation.  Each cluster has trained staff to provide 24-hour care for the other challenges the residents may face.  From 2008 to 2015 the level of long-term homelessness, which had stayed the same for decades, fell by 35%. Despite the cost of providing housing, studies have shown that this approach saves 9,600 euros per person when compared to serving the needs of the homeless while they are still living in the street.

An apartment complex built for the homeless by Y Foundation in Finland. Photo Credit: Y Foundation
Hillary Cottam

In the United Kingdom social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam has begun applying some of the same principles to government welfare programs.  Cottam found that in the UK, the average government social worker spent 74% of her time doing administrative work.  So she flipped the process, creating a Life Team approach.  A person receiving government aid first defines their own goals for what they want to accomplish – get a job, overcome addiction, have stable housing, etc.  Then the person selects eight people from government agencies to help her achieve that goal.  They meet regularly, and the teams helps the participants navigate the various government programs relevant to their goals. Most of the people participating in this approach no longer need the support of the Life Team after 18 months. (Read Hillary’s book, Radical Help or watch her TED Talk or read David Brooks’ column about her.)

The graduation approach, Housing First and Life Teams share some common principles:

  • The participant is not the object, she is the agent.  She is the one that will manage her journey out of poverty. 
  • Participants needs to find stability before they can begin transformation.
  • Programs should be designed from the inside out, starting with the perspective of the participant.
  • Services should come to the participant, and she should have one primary point of contact.
  • Lasting change requires mentoring and support groups.

Fortunately for Latoya, she has found her way into a program that follows these same principles.  Breakthrough Urban Ministries serves a 40-block area in the East Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago with a comprehensive set of services.  Latoya stays in transitional housing provided by Breakthrough while Breakthrough staff work with her to secure permanent housing.  She has access to physical and psychological health care.  She attends classes that help her develop new skills and earn certificates.  She participates in recovery groups that give her support.  She has reached a more stable place, ready to make the changes that will allow her to live independently. In Latoya’s case, private charity is filling in the gaps of what the government provides.  But that charity is only enough for Breakthrough to cover 40 blocks.

Breakthrough, East Garfield Park, Chicago

Latoya told me how much a difference having a stable place to live has meant for her ability to make the changes she knew she needed to make.  “It’s good to have a group of people on your side.  As long as you got people on your side, they can help you and guide you when you get down or when you don’t know something.  It’s good to do your own footwork, but sometimes you need someone to pick you up.”

Now, she says, she is motivated by one goal. “I want to have my own place so that I can have my daughter back living with me.”

1 Comment

  1. Larry,

    Another terrific posting. America has so much to learn form the rest of the world. I think that totally re envisioning assisting the poorest based on the best on what has been learned abroad would with a focus on dignity would lead to much positive change. Do read $2 per day,


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