It has been nearly 80 years since the progressive movement began its attempt to alleviate systemic poverty with federal action: first, in the 1930s, via Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” and then, in the 1960s, via Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society.” But judging by today’s landscape, neither vision has proven adequate to the task. Today, government at both the federal and state level spends a combined $1 trillion per year on programs meant to help low-income Americans. Over the last half-century, an estimated $16 trillion has been spent in this manner. And yet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the official poverty rate in 2014 was 14.8 percent, no better than it was in 1966.
In a recent column for National Review Online, Florida senator Marco Rubio offered a possible reason for anti-poverty programs’ lack of success: “Where liberals see the world of individual and state — that individual needs must be met by an ever-expanding, top-down government — conservatives have the opportunity to promote a vision of society that embraces community-driven, grassroots solutions.”
One such leader, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, is a staunch advocate of community-based solutions to poverty and unemployment. Moreover, in attesting to the value of local anti-poverty efforts, Johnson can point to his considerable firsthand experience. After traveling around Wisconsin during his first five years as senator — he was elected in 2010, in the wave of tea-party enthusiasm that brought many new conservative faces to Congress — Johnson realized that despite the high levels of unemployment in metropolitan areas such as Milwaukee and Madison, manufacturers across his state still had thousands of unfilled jobs. And so, seeking to solve both problems at once, Johnson partnered with a Milwaukee-area church to institute the Joseph Project, a program that recruits and trains impoverished people, connects them to potential employers, and supports their subsequent careers.
In Milwaukee, where the recent shooting death of a black man prompted three days of riots, it is easy to see why low-income black people are dissatisfied with their situation and ready for new solutions. Wisconsin had the worst socioeconomic conditions in the country for African Americans in 2015, with black unemployment hovering around 20 percent, as well as a high quotient of violence, illegal drug usage, and failing schools. And the unemployment rate for blacks in Milwaukee was four times higher than that of white Americans in the city.
The project was “a coming together of concepts, of the knowledge that you have all this job opportunity and yet so many people are trapped in that cycle of dependency, despair, and poverty,” Johnson told NRO.
According to Smith, the idea for the project arose after he and several other pastors visited the Sheboygan Economic Development Corporation about an hour’s drive from Milwaukee, a visit facilitated by Orlando Owens, who was serving as director of African-American outreach for the Wisconsin GOP and who later joined Johnson’s staff. It became clear during this trip that a number of corporations had unfilled manufacturing jobs, while Smith knew of countless people in the Milwaukee area who were looking for work.
On the drive back, the Joseph Project was born. Two weeks later, Smith, Johnson, and members of Johnson’s staff conducted the inaugural training session with a class of 14 individuals. Now, almost a year on, nearly 140 people have received job interviews; more than 80 of them have received job offers, and about 60 have maintained employment since.
For each session, Smith identifies about 60 people through his church who are looking for work; he then interviews them to select ten or twelve who are most committed to contributing the effort needed to succeed. Each week-long session takes place in the Greater Praise church building and teaches participants soft skills such as time management and spiritual fitness, as well as how to interview. So far, the Joseph Project has held twelve sessions, and as the program has developed, successful graduates have returned to speak to each new class about the importance of hard work.
Johnson himself has attended nearly every session to give an orientation pep talk. “Having been an employer myself, I tell them the most important attribute to exhibit in an interview is a good attitude,” Johnson said, “and the fact that you want to help the organization succeed.”
Smith gave an analogy to explain Johnson’s essential role in the initiation and continuation of the Joseph Project. “Senator Johnson . . . goes out and kicks open the door by talking to manufacturing companies, and he convinces them that we’re the type of organization that they should be taking employees from,” Smith said.
Smith and the staff members running the program then work to keep that “door” open. “It’s like a big fire door,” Smith explained. “The people trying to close the door are the people in the program who don’t show up for the van on time, who don’t show up for class, who call in sick to work.” …
Both Smith and Johnson stress the dignity that stems from being able to provide for oneself and the crucial role this dignity plays in the Joseph Project’s success stories. One young man, Trayvonn Brown, said in a video that the Joseph Project taught him the distinction between a job and a career. “A job is something where you just work to get by,” Brown explained. “A career is something you do with your life, something that you like. So, I’m trying to find a career.”
“This program shows that local control and local involvement, as well as a faith-based approach, actually work, and we can provide the pilot to have this grow into something bigger nationally,” Johnson said. “I’m not just doing this because I’m a United States senator. . . . I’m trying to use my position here to highlight a success and provide an example for others to follow.”
He also noted that the tremendous government resources poured into anti-poverty efforts have not paid off as anticipated: “There were 29 million poor Americans when the War on Poverty started, now there are 46 or 47 million. The evidence is clear that when we outsource our compassion to the federal government, it hasn’t worked.”
The senator feels strongly, too, that support for local efforts such as the Joseph Project shouldn’t be confined to one political perspective. “There’s no one political party that has a monopoly on compassion,” he said. “We all want our fellow citizens to succeed and to have the opportunity to do so.”
He shot back at those who would accuse Republicans of lacking compassion for impoverished Americans, accusations often based on the fact that conservatives tend to support welfare or entitlement reform. “The charges that Republicans are uncaring are just false. The Joseph Project proves that I certainly care about each of my constituents.”
“This [project] has crossed political parties,” Smith agreed. “It has crossed denominational boundaries. I’m not aware of any other single thing that’s doing that. It’s crossing racial boundaries. That’s powerful. This is making a heck of an impact in the lives of people. Because of us, people are going to eat well on Labor Day and will go shopping with their kids for school.”
Johnson said that local programs such as the Joseph Project are closely tied to federal anti-poverty efforts like House Speaker Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America” policy proposal. As NRO has previously reported, Ryan traveled extensively to meet with low-income people across the country as he developed this plan, and an old friend of his, Bob Woodson, facilitated many of those meetings. Woodson, who founded the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, is also the author of The Triumphs of Joseph, the book that inspired the name of the Joseph Project.
Ryan’s plan is practical, detailed, and comprehensive, disproving liberals’ assertions that Republican leaders don’t care about the fate of poor people. Drawing on the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, much of the proposal focuses on solutions grounded at the local level, where it is easiest to identify and address the particular causes of poverty. And, like Johnson and Smith’s program, Ryan’s anti-poverty agenda emphasizes the inherent dignity of work, a dignity afforded to impoverished Americans when they receive employment opportunities rather than a government handout.
Ryan’s chief goals are to limit government regulation and provide financial incentives to those who enable the transition from welfare to work. According to the Republican agenda, the federal government’s main contribution to state-level anti-poverty efforts should be to foster public-private partnerships that support local programs. …
“We have seen the fruits of an approach to welfare that puts work first,” Rubio wrote at NRO. “We must now apply this principle through federalism, empowering problem-solvers who are closest to the ground while teaching the benefits of a working, productive life from doorstep to doorstep, not from on high in Washington.”
No matter how vociferously liberals insist that federal regulations, expansion of welfare, and protection of entitlements will lift citizens out of poverty, the record shows that, in practice, compassionate, conservative leaders such as Senator Johnson are the ones supporting and empowering low-income Americans.