Anyone who studies social policy or works in the social services, will, at some point, be struck by the following thought: all these problems are hopelessly interconnected.
Unemployment; re-entry; mental health; substance abuse; injustice; poverty; crime; lack of education; homelessness.
None of these can be fully separated from any of the others. How do we deal with crime if we don’t first reform the schools? How do we reform the schools if we don’t end poverty first?
At the same time, it’s paralyzing to believe that “we can’t solve problem X until every other problem is solved first.”
Both of these statements can be true: (1) yes, all these problems are connected; (2) you have to start somewhere.
So where to start?
Policymaking in America typically looks like this: we set up various programs, run by separate agencies, to work on separate problems.
Take homelessness. Staffers in homeless services bureaucracies, such as at the federal U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, understand that homelessness overlaps with multiple other problems. But, they feel that, they have a job to do, and those problems aren’t their job. Housing is their job. Their attitude is, let’s get the housing piece in place, then we deal with everything else later.
“Everything else,” there, means unemployment, sobriety, healthier relationships with friends and family. Too often, government never gets around to dealing with “everything else.” We hope that people get their lives back together after we place them in housing. But we should be doing more than hoping. With employment, especially, we need to invest in programs that start with work, and don’t just hope for it.
Housing’s a challenge everywhere. In every American city, low-rent housing units run in short supply. What do we do while we’re waiting for everything to be arranged such that, in every community, everybody gets to live in exactly the housing they want and at a perfectly affordable rent? We could be waiting a very long time for that to happen. What do we do in the meantime?
To repeat, if you have to start somewhere, where do you start?
There’s value in starting with work. That is, connecting people with a job as soon as possible, even when dealing with individuals struggling with other very serious problems, such as substance abuse disorders and strained relations with friends and family. If you start with work, there’s less risk you’ll lose sight of it, and consign in to the category of “things we’ll get around to when we get around to them.”
For individuals, work provides numerous benefits such as a sense of pride and self-reliance, to say nothing of income. It also provides numerous benefits to communities and families. Promoting work is about reweaving the social fabric. Building people up so that they’re in a position to restore old relationships. Giving people in recovery something to recover for. Giving family members a way to tell that someone who, though they may have made some mistakes in the past, really has changed. “We don’t have to just take his word for it. He’s holding down a job, supporting himself, which was not the case before.”
That’s the larger lesson, as I see it, about what The Doe Fund is doing with Work Works. It’s about trying to build healthier communities. One program at a time, one community at a time.
This piece originally appeared at The Doe Fund
Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal.
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