By Lowell L. Kalapa, president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii

The word “change” played an important role in the presidential campaign as voters seemed to be tired of the same old Washington politics, of political insiders and well-heeled lobbyists.

So it is puzzling why here in our own back yard, people are so resistant to change within state and county government.  For example, an agency is given the resources to have a modern information technology system, but those who will use the system and realize it benefits demand that the contractor build a system that works exactly like the one they have had for the past thirty years.  Why?  Because they don’t want the change that will make them learn a new system.  As a result, the agency remains as inefficient as it ever was.

On another level, lawmakers and administrators who have worked with the welfare system continue to deliver the same services year after year.  Many see their responsibility as making sure that the poor get their welfare handouts, as these folks are “poor.”  This attitude was embodied in the fight over using what is known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) funds for programs other than handing out welfare checks.  Perhaps the differences of opinion over the use of these funds stemmed from a lack of trust or personality differences, but those disagreements, in the long run, do not benefit the poor as a whole.  Under the TANF program, in addition to providing for welfare assistance, those funds can be used for programs such as addressing teen pregnancies or skills training.  These are preventative programs to help those in need gain the skills that will, hopefully, help them make their way out of poverty by becoming self-sufficient.

By assisting the poor to leave the welfare rolls the community, as a whole, benefits as those who are successful now become contributing members of the community.  As those in the social welfare field know, preventative programs can save resources in the long run and usually come with costs that are far less than those programs which provide intervention services.  But if one is part of the bureaucracy that is slow to change, changing the way services are delivered and which services are to be delivered can be like turning a luxury cruise liner on a dime, difficult, if not impossible.

A good case in point is public housing.  For years, the public housing program was located within the social services department and, in fact, was a part of the name of the agency called the department of social services and housing or DSSH.  The department was not only responsible for public housing but housing of the incarcerated as well.  Then when the term housing was also extended to assisting financially challenged families with the purchase of their first home, a financing section was created to help families with low-interest loans.

Believing that this was a high priority, the agency was moved from the social services department to the economic development department where policymakers believed they could handle the financing activities better.

But by then the purpose of public housing got lost in the shuffle.  The perception of public housing evolved to one of merely providing shelter to the poor and any thought of supporting poor families to ultimately move them out of public housing was lost.

So today it is not uncommon to hear stories of how there may be at least five generations of the same family who have lived in public housing.  With few, if any, support services available to these families on many of the public housing campuses, there is little hope that the families will ever move out of public housing.  With fewer and fewer vacancies in public housing and no more resources to build more public housing units, the waiting lists grows longer with many on the list having to resort to living on the beach.

This is where the philosophy and approach to public housing must change.  The number one goal of the public housing agency should be to move those who are currently in public housing out of the public housing projects.  And the only way that can be done is to empower those families with the skills and information that will allow them to become self-sufficient.  This is a good change as giving poor families the tools with which they can provide for themselves brings not only self-sufficiency but self-respect.  There is, no doubt, that it is difficult to have self-respect when one is entirely dependent on government welfare checks.

Supporting poor families in public housing by giving them the skills they need to get a job, get an education, secure financial literacy and obtain good health care is a change that will benefit all taxpayers.  It is time for that change!

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