Engaging Individuals and Changing Systems

A Collection of Essays by Policy Experts and Community Leaders

From adopting policies that address systemic issues to individuals focused on their corner of the world, combating poverty takes a collective effort.

The Catalyst asked a variety of people on the front lines of fighting poverty or addressing its causes for a quick take on these questions:

What is the greatest barrier to struggling Americans attempting to make it out of poverty? And what might be done to overcome that barrier?


Christopher Fay
Executive Director, Homestretch, Falls Church, Virginia
"We must use our power to change unfair systems, promote equal opportunity, and redress the effects of unjust histories. And if we believe in each individual’s worth and capacity, we will structure our social service models to promote individual achievement and responsibility."


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After 30 years of working with homeless families, I have come to recognize two interlocking and reinforcing causes of poverty.

One is structural, related to social and political systems that keep people marginalized and disempowered. We must be honest about how unfair systems weigh down segments of our society. We must also honestly recognize how race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation may change a person’s starting position in her quest for financial and social stability.

The other cause of poverty is internal; it is an absence of hope, imagination, and will that are so critical to developing resilience and overcoming adversity. It is grounded in the way we think. I have found that it is seldom the severity of a person’s problems, or the duration of her turmoil, that determines her resilience and ability to recover from crisis. Everyone can ascend out of crisis and poverty, given the encouragement, resources, and opportunity to do so. 

This means two things must happen simultaneously. We must use our power to change unfair systems, promote equal opportunity, and redress the effects of unjust histories. And if we believe in each individual’s worth and capacity, we will structure our social service models to promote individual achievement and responsibility.



James Bernard sheds tears as he explains that no one has helped him or his partner as they lived outdoors in frigid Washington, D.C. in January 2019. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Ana Lopez Van Balen
Presidential Leadership Scholar; Affordable Housing Preservation Officer, District of Columbia’s Department of Housing and Community Development
"Policymakers, financial institutions, and other stakeholders can enhance the chances of creating opportunity for vulnerable families when they deliberately involve those families and their communities in making decisions, policies, and programs that affect their lives."


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Low-income families often face numerous barriers as they try to survive poverty, let alone emerge from poverty. One of the most significant barriers is the many government systems that families must work with to receive or maintain assistance. The process is often lengthy, complicated, and uncoordinated.

When you add in the piecemeal assistance that families receive from local non-profits or faith-based organizations, you can see that they spend a great deal of time trying to qualify for services. And they may not get the full assistance they need.

We can overcome this serious barrier by creating a system that treats low-income families with greater dignity and respect. Policymakers, financial institutions, and other stakeholders can enhance the chances of creating opportunity for vulnerable families when they deliberately involve those families and their communities in making decisions, policies, and programs that affect their lives.

This effort will require investing time and resources in engaging families and communities. But we can then better understand the root causes of poverty. And pathways out of poverty can be developed that are tailored to the unique needs of individual communities. Those solutions can lead to economic mobility for our lowest-income families, while reducing poverty and transforming our communities.


Nicol Turner-Lee
Fellow, Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation; Author, Digitally Invisible: How the Internet is Creating the New Underclass (Forthcoming in 2019)
"Achieving equitable digital access must be at the forefront of policy discussions to offset the unintended outcomes of automation, the use of big data, and the burgeoning app economy."


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The Fourth Industrial Revolution has described the new digital economy, which has disrupted legacy industries, afforded new consumer and marketplace conveniences, and empowered civil society to stand up to the status quo. Yet, more than half of the world’s population still does not have internet access and among those are millions of U.S. citizens who still live an analog existence.

These non-adopters are more likely to be poor, less educated, people of color, older, less able, or living within rural communities. As the digital revolution quickly carves out this other America, the nation must address the digitally-disconnected, who will fall deeper into poverty as well as social and physical isolation.

While being online provides entry into contemporary society, it also requires financial collateral, digital skills and intuition, and oftentimes the right geography to fully participate. It will be the inability of certain populations to exploit online opportunities that will create a new underclass and a widened “digital divide.”

Achieving equitable digital access must be at the forefront of policy discussions to offset the unintended outcomes of automation, the use of big data, and the burgeoning app economy. This goal is in the interest of families who are being left behind as well as in the interest of U.S. competitiveness, particularly as technology becomes more globally transformative.


Rodney Adams
Executive Director, Munger Place United Methodist Church, Dallas
"The most effective antidote to homelessness and severe poverty that we have observed is when people risk their free time and emotional bandwidth to form real relationships with those in need."


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Mother Teresa famously said that "the greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy, but being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for.” A variety of factors contribute to the unfortunate circumstances of the poorest people who live in our church's neighborhood, but the most common denominator that we have observed among them is loneliness. 

Opioids and poor decision making can certainly contribute to becoming poor, but being nameless and faceless will surely keep you there. The most effective antidote to homelessness and severe poverty that we have observed is when people risk their free time and emotional bandwidth to form real relationships with those in need - people who would otherwise never socialize together.

Here is a simple way to learn to limit yourself for the good of someone else who isn’t like you:

  • Learn a name. Then, be the first to use it the next time you see that person.
  • Don't get nervous that they might ask you for something. The severely impoverished ask from their friends far less than they ask from strangers. And we are almost always happy to help a friend in need.
  • Commit to befriending that person over the long term.

Dan Hooper
Executive Director, ScholarShot, Dallas; Author, Fleece U – How American Universities are Robbing our Kids and Our Future (Forthcoming in 2019)
"We are over-matching kids from poverty, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, by sending them to schools without enough systems in place to help them earn a degree."


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A blind spot in our education system presents a major barrier for Americans hoping to exit poverty. We are over-matching kids from poverty, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, by sending them to schools without enough systems in place to help them earn a degree. Across the nation, very few students from low-income families actually complete a college degree.

We have mistakenly made college “access” our measure of success. If we had focused instead on students completing a degree, not simply going to college, the number of Americans living in poverty would have shrunk considerably. At the same time, our middle class would be a more dynamic segment of our society. 

These students need realistic advice so they are matched with a college they can afford and that will prepare them for a good job. They need academic managers who can help them navigate the academic and social challenges that a two- or four-year university present. Those two steps would ensure that public-and private-financial aid translates to a degree. 

Through no fault of their own, these students are underfunded and unprepared. They deserve strategies that will help them complete college, not just attend one.


Larry James
CEO, CitySquare, Dallas, Texas
"We need new, just policies and funding to address this unsustainable situation, which stacks the deck against low-income persons and families."


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Let me address this in terms of Dallas. The city’s affordable housing shortage, some would say “crisis” with well-reasoned justification, presents an almost intractable situation for residents, developers, and political leaders. 

Consider: 

  • The high cost of construction materials, the shortage of qualified labor, the escalating price of land, and the relatively flat nature of wages, all combine to create a distressed housing market. 
  • An important U. S. Supreme Court ruling decided that the disparate impact of the use of public housing subsidies must not result in continuing segregation. Practically speaking, this ruling requires that public funds be expended only in “high opportunity” neighborhoods, meaning those with less than 20 percent impoverished residents and a “high performing” public school. Affordable housing is often unwelcome in such communities, making the use of Low Income Housing Tax Credits virtually impossible.
  • Legally, landlords and property owners are free to reject families and individuals who present housing vouchers for payment of rent. Texas law does not make such discrimination illegal, nor does the Fair Housing legislation provide tenants any relief. The discrimination based on source of payment tightens the available housing market and serves to segregate low-income persons more deeply in certain Dallas neighborhoods. 

The practical results of these forces can be seen in a housing market that produces only luxury housing units. We need new, just policies and funding to address this unsustainable situation, which stacks the deck against low-income persons and families.