When we met Adolphus at the age of 58, he had been arrested over 90 times. He had served six prison terms and was preparing yet again to re-enter society here in the state of Georgia.
During the re-entry process, he received a statement from the Social Security Administration that told him he had not made any deposits or contributions to Social Security. In his own words, he had never had what you or I, or even he would call a legitimate job. Many would have likely viewed him as a stereotypical social outcast to be written-off as a drain on taxpayers, having been “institutionalized” by a life of homelessness and incarceration.
Adolphus wanted to change that. That letter struck an emotional chord with him and served as the catalyst for conversion. Despite his history, he sought to find purpose in his life. Not only did he end up finding employment, but he also dedicated his time to helping other formerly homeless and formerly incarcerated men and women get on their feet and find work.
The reason I bring this up is because Adolphus is exactly the kind of person we’re inclined to give up on. I’ll be the first to admit that I would tend to believe someone with that type of record would have a very bleak future, having not much to offer to society at large. But here was a guy with deep longings. He wanted to be self-sufficient.
He wanted his life to have meaning.
We should assume that everyone longs for purpose and belonging just as your or I do, no matter how many mistakes they’ve made or how far they have fallen from grace. Over the last 60 years now, our Great Society programs have been treating individuals only as material beings—as just another cog in the machine—and not really anything more than that.
The Left’s solution has historically been simply to throw more money at the problem and ignore systematic issues and the perverse incentives they create. The Right’s solution has typically been financially focused, keying-in on issues like waste, fraud, and abuse.
What both sides have overlooked (or at least under-emphasized) is the importance of getting people back into the workforce.
What Adolphus knows, and what “the System” generally fails to acknowledge, is that a job is more than just a source of income. It’s a source of pride, purpose, and belonging. It provides us with a sense of wellbeing that comes with earning our success and enjoying the fruits of our labor.
At the Georgia Center for Opportunity and our partner institutions at the Pelican Institute for Public Policy in Louisiana and Texas Public Policy Foundation, we realize we can no longer afford to neglect the human, non-financial side of poverty and employment. That’s why we have formed the Alliance for Opportunity—a multi-state campaign to ensure every American has the chance to pursue happiness and escape poverty. Together over the next 10 years, we hope to bring more than 1 million residents of our three respective states out of poverty and into prosperity by promoting the dignity of work and connection to community necessary for a flourishing life.
Our vision is bold, but with the strategic roadmap outlined at allianceforopporunity.com, state legislators have the chance to break away from the status quo and achieve meaningful and lasting safety-net reform. Together, we can continue to give our fellow citizens like Adolphus a real chance to secure more than just a job.