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Intersection of Economy with Human Service Needs

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By Lowell L. Kalapa

What would seem to be opposite ends of the spectrum of the issues that confront our community are in fact intrinsically linked to one another.
This is the issue of the well-being of our state economy and the well-being of the members of our community be it physical health, mental health, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, childcare, or drug abuse. And perhaps we think of these issues as being two disparate issues because we have been trained to think of them as distinct concepts and not as one related to the other.
The traditional response to human service needs has been a “handout,” a welfare check or food stamps. We have been trained to believe that as long as we take care of the needs of the poor, we are helping the downtrodden. We see it the way we have provided housing for the poor, building housing projects which have become permanent residences for four or five generations of the same family. We see it in the way we have handed out assistance to families, providing regular welfare checks and food stamps.
Did anyone ever ask those people receiving those welfare checks and food stamps what it feels like to be dependent on those “handouts?” What does that scenario do for the self-esteem of those welfare recipients? How does doling out public assistance stem the tide of poverty and welfare programs?
Ah, but someone saw the light several years ago when Congress approved the “welfare to work” concept which put a limit on the number of years persons could receive public assistance. Many thought that placing a limit on the number of years one could receive public assistance would bring disaster to the community. And it might have failed had the edict not come with another mandate. And that was to provide public assistance recipients with employment and life skills training. To insure that those who have children are not left out of the transition, childcare was also to be provided.
While many doubted that this initiative would succeed, there are numerous success stories of how empowerment of those who formerly depended on public assistance have made the transition. But there are also many frustrated individuals who are still trying to make it on their own. And this is where the well-being of the economy intersects with the well being of our community.
Because of the weak economy, jobs for those transitioning from welfare to work are difficult to find while those entrepreneurs who want to start their own small businesses struggle with the hurdles and barriers that face all small businesses. Without a strong and vibrant economy, improving the lot of those struggling to leave welfare will be difficult to accomplish. So to a large degree if the economy does not do well, we can expect the need for humans services and support to grow.
Similarly, the response to those who are without shelter is to build public housing. That may have been the proper response initially, but doing nothing more than being a landlord almost guaranteed that those who needed public housing stayed in public housing. In fact, over the years the concept of public housing by public bureaucrats was that this was permanent housing. The result has been the building of more and more public housing which means additional capital and maintenance costs for the state public housing program.
In recent years, the philosophy at the national level has been that public housing is temporary housing, providing shelter for those who have encountered a difficult time in their life. Instead of providing housing for generations of the same family, efforts are being made to give families the tools to make the move from public housing to subsidized hosing and then into the private housing market. But it takes those tools to help these families gain the skills that they will need to move from public housing to the private housing market.
Again, unless the economy is strong enough to provide the jobs that those in public housing need to make the transition to private housing, then those families in public housing will have no where to go. And unless those administrators in public housing also make sure that these families amass the skills, then the transition cannot take place and the state will continue to try and catch up with the need for public housing by building even more public housing.
Economic well-being has a lot to do with the well-being of our community. Without the jobs people need to flee poverty and all of the associated social ills, Hawaii will continue to deal with growing social problems.

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