Economic Social Legal Pathways, Inc.

The Challenges & Solutions

The Challenges

In the U.S. today there are millions of individuals and families living profoundly troubled lives marked by multiple disadvantages. The human cost, with children who grow up in damaging and unstable environments frequently set on a path to poorer outcomes later in life. The most recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that more than 16% of the U.S. population lived in poverty, up from 14.3% (approximately 43.6 million) in 2009 and to its highest level since 1993. In 2008, 13.2% (39.8 million) Americans lived in poverty. Starting in the 1980s, relative poverty rates have consistently exceeded those of other wealthy nations. California has a poverty rate of 23.8%, the highest of any state in the country. This is updated from the November 2012 estimate of 23.6.

In 2009,  the number of people who were in poverty was approaching 1960s  levels that  led  to  the  national  War on Poverty.  In 2011, extreme poverty in the United States, meaning households living on less than $2 per day before government benefits, was double 1996 levels at 1.5 million households, including 2.8 million children.

In 2012 the percentage of seniors living in poverty was 14% while 18% of children were. The addition of Social Security benefits contributed more to reduce poverty than any other factor.

Recent census data shows that half the population qualifies as poor or low income, with one in five Millennials living in poverty. Academic contributors to The Routledge Handbook of Poverty in the United States postulate that new and extreme forms of poverty have emerged in the U.S. as a result of neoliberal structural adjustment policies and globalization, which have rendered economically marginalized communities as destitute "surplus populations" in need of control and punishment.

In 2011, child poverty reached record high levels, with 16.7 million children living in food insecure households, about 35% more than 2007 levels. A 2013 UNICEF report ranked the U.S. as having the second highest relative child poverty rates in the developed world. 

On average, about 600,000 people experience homelessness in the U.S. — meaning they sleep outside or in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program. Around 44% of homeless people are employed. There are more than five times as many vacant homes in the U.S. as there are homeless people, according to Amnesty International USA. Since 2007, banks have shuttered about 8 million American houses, almost doubling the previous number, while millions of American homeless shiver in the cold. 

In 2015, homelessness is considered an epidemic in several American cities. "Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and seven of the 15 City Council members announced they would declare a state of emergency and try to find $100 million to cure what has become a municipal curse." Homelessness in New York City has tripled since January 2000, from approximately 20,000 people using provided nightly shelter services to more than 60,000 in January 2015. These counts do not include those persons who choose to stay away from shelter providers.


These are not new challenges, but they are in need of a new approach. We can no longer sustain a strategy based on maintenance alone, more concerned with pushing people just above the poverty line than changing their lives. That is why ESLS's strategy sets out an ambitious new vision for supporting the most disadvantaged individuals and families in the US. 

ESLP's vision is based on two fundamental principles. First, prevention throughout a person’s life, with carefully designed interventions to stop people falling off track and into difficult circumstances. This starts with support for the most important building block in a child’s life – the family – but also covers reform of the school and youth justice systems, the welfare system, and beyond to look at how we can prevent damaging behaviors like substance abuse and offending.

Second, ESLP's strategy sets out our vision for a ‘second chance society’. Anybody who needs a second chance in society should be able to access the support and tools they need to transform their lives. Delivery must be focused on providing these services. Early intervention, social investment, payment by results, multi-agency delivery – these should be the watchwords for every government department, local authority and private or voluntary sector provider in the coming years.

What does all of this mean in practice?

  1. It means we should start to see vulnerable parents being supported from the early days of their children’s lives, accessing health advice and able to build a loving and supportive environment for their children to grow up in.  
  2. It means we should start to see families who used to be inundated by government agencies having a known and trusted single point of contact, someone who knows their name and their story. 
  3. And it means we should start to see people with long-term drug dependence who have been maintained in their condition for many years referred to local, innovative, organizations who are able to invest in getting them back into work, getting them clean, and changing their lives.
  4. It means we should provide unconditional care (housing, medical, behavioral, food) to those with debilitating chronic mental health and physical disabilities. 

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