Workfare, as President Bill Clinton designed it, has failed. Poverty is more resilient in the United States than it has been since the Great Depression. The reforms collectively understood as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) have swollen the ranks of the working poor and cannot address the needs of the lower middle class since the advent of the Great Recession in 2008.
America has become the world’s leading jailer with most of the inmates held on non-violent offenses. The combination of poverty, incarceration, and crumbling schools condemn millions of families to destitution for generations. The original promise of American prosperity has not been so far out of reach for more than a century.
Beyond the contraction of the welfare state, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has offered few effective solutions. Section 8 programs have only begun to adapt to the marketplace in the last decade. Local restrictions on socio-economic integration prevent the most deserving households from finding the best opportunities. Food stamps and Head Start programs suffer the worst cuts under misguided initiatives like sequestration.
It is time federal and state governments considered a global solution to this national crisis. Embassy zones in the world’s developing economies provide an invaluable system to end the worst affront to the American Dream – intergenerational poverty. Embassy zones (under the supervision of the Department of State) would provide fiscal savings in terms of housing, food, and income support for low-income families. It is just too expensive in the United States to provide a domestic safety net.
More importantly, the comparatively low cost of living in countries like the Virgin Islands, the Philippines, India, Mozambique, and the Czech Republic enable impoverished American families to achieve better living conditions, despite the reduced cost of public support. Coupled with better educational opportunities, more options for consistent physical and mental health support, and cleaner, safer neighborhoods, embassy zones would provide an unparalleled second chance for these families.
In terms of macroeconomic impacts, America’s working poor will export two cultural values to their hosting partner nations. First, they will raise the level of consumer demand in each country, facilitating greater demand for industrial production in both the developing nation and the global marketplace. Second, their economic stability will produce rates of saving and entrepreneurship that have not been evident since 1970 in the existing American communities.
Working families with heads of household approaching retirement age (55 and over) could choose exemptions. Felons with multiple violent offenses would not be eligible to participate. State and local government would hold the primary responsibility to evaluate applicants. Mobility has been the key for both youth and adult workers to build better lives. Poverty too often relies on the physical isolation of productive citizens. Knowledge of and experience with world society have too often remained the provinces of the wealthy and the privileged.
Embassy zones would improve the world economy, expand opportunities for working class families, and eliminate the increasing rate of poverty in the United States. It is a solution that ends our longest national nightmare – inequality in the provision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Dr. Walter Greason is the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey.