The market's invisible, oppressive hand perpetuates poverty

Vann Ellison is right about three things in his recent commentary on poverty and social enterprise ("Beyond government," July 10): Our country hasn't done an effective job of addressing poverty. Partisan gridlock weakens the social safety net and social enterprises can be effective in getting people back to work, even if they can't ensure wages sufficient for them to afford market-rate housing.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ellison misses the mark on just about everything else.

That poverty persists in the richest nation in the history of history is worthy of serious exploration. But instead, Mr. Ellison would have us abandon the hope of renewed national priorities in favor of blind faith in an invisible hand that has done little but hold down our most vulnerable neighbors.

His insistence that the "free market system" holds the magic (and somehow "secret") solution to poverty is akin to suggesting that lactose intolerance is best overcome by a steady diet of milk and ice cream. And his inference that what's left of our social safety net should go the way of "poor houses, orphanages and insane asylums" hardly seems a logical comparison for our parents and grandparents, who were lifted out of poverty by the Social Security and Medicare programs they invested their hard-earned resources in throughout their careers.

It's curious that Mr. Ellison should direct our attention to the other side of the pond to assert that England and other industrialized democracies face challenges "more difficult than our own." In fact, most of these nations have invested far more in affordable housing, health care and wage guarantees, and they enjoy lower rates of poverty and better health outcomes as a result.

The spike in homelessness they're seeing now as public safety nets are scaled back is not at all dissimilar from what we've experienced over the past 35 years when leaders on both sides of the political aisle declared, like Mr. Ellison, that government isn't the solution — and then dis-invested in housing and services as if to prove their misguided point.

There's a better question to be asked than "can government solve the problem of poverty?" It is: "How can a vibrant democracy ensure the health and well-being of its people?" The answer requires the involvement of all sectors — public and private, for-profit and nonprofit.

Mr. Ellison believes — as do we — that people who aren't working can indeed work again and that this noble goal is worth an investment of time and resources. Let's apply this same principle to a democracy that isn't reaching its full potential. And let's employ the bottom-up, "community-driven" advocacy necessary to shape a society in which we all can live.

Kevin Lindamood, Baltimore

The writer is president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless.

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