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Poverty solution? Talk to those living it, activist says

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman is looking to reauthorize federal acts and pass recidivism reduction legislation as follow-up to the anti-poverty speech he delivered earlier this week.

But Jeffrey Diver, executive director of Supports to Encourage Low-Income Families, said to really find a solution to poverty, Portman, or any elected official, needs to talk with those who are in poverty.

“I applaud any elected official who wishes to address the root causes of poverty, but I would encourage to talk to those who are in poverty to truly understand what are the issues families are facing,” he said. “It’s easy for people to say I think it’s this, or I think it’s that, but you can gain great insight by sitting down with them and really exploring what the issues are.”

Portman delivered the speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. This year is the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which the government has spent $15 trillion on poverty reduction in that time only to have today 47 million Americans living in poverty.

During a press conference with Ohio reporters this week, Portman said the reaction to his speech has been “mixed.” He said some Democrats and commentators said “this is just another example of a Republican saying they’re concerned about poverty but not providing specifics or not acting,” but he said the overall response has been “excellent because people are interested in solutions.”

Portman said he’s co-sponsored the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act of 2014 by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island. That act, among other things, would direct the Bureau of Prisons to offer “evidence-based recidivism reduction programs” to identify those who need such programs, offer a reduction of up to 60 days if a prisoner is in custody, and directs the attorney general to develop programs that would reduce recidivism risk factors.

“Sometimes it’s not so much of the drug addiction but because of the consequences of it which lead to the gangs and the violence,” said Portman. “And if you don’t deal with this issue of prisoner re-entry and coming up with more sensible ways to get people back into being productive tax-paying citizens than creating more crimes, getting back into the systems I don’t think it’s possible to see the kinds of success we all hope for in bringing people out of poverty.

Portman is also looking to reauthorize the Second Chance Act, which is designed among other things to address recidivism, and reauthorize the Drug Free Communities Act that he authored in 1997.

Diver said poverty is a “complex problem” and there is no single solution.

“It requires a variety of approaches to address it effectively,” he said. “Poverty is very demoralizing, it is depressing and addressing some of the root issues of why some people may turn to substance abuse may be partly due to the conditions in which they are living.”

Another issue that has lead people into poverty, Diver said, is income equality. He said SELF offers Getting Ahead, a program that analyzes a person in poverty’s situation and a plan for prosperity is developed. This program provides people “a supportive hand” to help them “escape poverty.”

“For those who want to leave poverty, it doesn’t happen overnight,” Diver said.

Portman agrees there is a growing income equality gap, but said Tuesday “we don’t hear much about what is driving it.”

“Yes, the rich are getting richer, but the real problems is the middle class is shrinking — along with their paychecks — and too few people are rising out of poverty … and living their dreams,” Portman said Tuesday.

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