An experience with a constituent helped me to understand what it meant.
One day, the mother of a 12 year-old girl I mentored called me asking for help after they had become homeless.
I found a temporary place for the family to stay while the mother got back on her feet and suggested that we look for a job that would pay her bills. She looked distressed and informed me that she didn’t know where to start. I told her I would help and asked her to start listing past jobs to update her resume.
“I don’t know how to write a resume,” she said. “Can you do it for me? The government got me the last job and my housing. I couldn’t possibly do this myself.”
I later learned that she was the third generation in her family to live in public housing where rent can be as low as $100 a month. She lost her place when she gave up her housing to go to the mainland. A government program helped her to get multiple jobs with one making $22 an hour as a telemarketer. She lost that job when the company downsized and was back at square one, with no job and no wherewithal to find another.
Three months passed and she still had not applied for work. She chose instead to rely on her chances that she would be next on the public housing waiting list even though the wait was 2 to 3 years. She said she would continue to try to stay from place to place as she has done for a year.
There was nothing wrong with this woman. She was entirely capable of learning new skills and being a productive employee. The tragedy is that she did not know it. For years, the government had reinforced her reliance on those programs and she knew no way out.
I wondered how she would have fared if she had been with my grandfather on a ship from the Philippines so many years ago. He had come to America with a few pieces of clothing and just enough money to buy a few meals. When he died, he owned several properties, had money in the bank and he had done it the old fashioned way – on his own.
Hawaii hands out the most welfare dollars, food, and benefits than all the states in the country. How can we expect to end poverty with such a disincentive to get out of it? Instead of just making poverty easier to live with, we must shift our focus to spending more resources on empowering recipients with the skills and confidence to become self-reliant. Government took away her dignity by doing for her what she could do for herself.
I keep an old couch in my office at the State Capitol to remind myself of when I was homeless once. Too poor to afford my own place while I was paying high college bills, I slept on that couch in someone else’s small condominium. All my belongings had to fit in my car. I finally took a second job to get my own place but couldn’t afford a bed so I slept on the floor. I fondly look back at those days as a time that gave me ability to survive anything.
It’s easy for people in government to throw money at a problem. What’s harder, but more important, is to find out why the problem exists, help a person gain the skills to solve the problem and then watch as their character is strengthened by allowing them to fight their way out of it.
Anything can be achieved with hard work. The only person that can stop a person from finding success is one’s self. That is, one’s self and the government.