Optimizing Government Assistance Programs for Communities Disintegrated by Poverty

By Makayla Harris

Background ﹣ How prevalent is this issue?

In America, the quality of living based on income varies from state to state. Most of this can be contributed to the fact that aside from federal government aid, states and municipalities enact their own legislation in order to dictate how aid from public welfare programs is dispensed in local communities. In terms of aid, the most common forms of local governmental assistance include food share, housing controls, and disability assistance. In most if not all local governments, citizens intending to take advantage of these forms of assistance must meet some criterion of need which can include meeting the state’s marginal poverty line, unemployment, or possessing a disease or disorder which limits an individual from fully optimizing his/her environment.

Problem﹣Why government assistance programs need to be revitalized?

As all of the above issues can severely curb an individual’s ability to thrive in a community, government assistance programs offer stability that the citizen would otherwise have a difficult time obtaining or lack completely. According to Hakovirta et al., “Social assistance benefits are vital for their [children and mothers’] economic survival and are important in fulfilling policy aims that intend to tackle poverty” (19). Due to the fact that government assistance is mostly provided for by taxes, low income communities often do not have the amount of funding it requires to foster adequate schools, housing, and public spaces which their more wealthy counterparts are able to access in suburban communities. Taking the city of Milwaukee for example, where more than 73,500 children were living in poverty in 2015, a large portion of its residents depend on public housing and schooling programs for security (Quinn). According to Wolff et al., “The Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee is dedicated to providing safe and sanitary housing to low-income persons” (118). Since money is scarce in urban communities, municipal agencies such as the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee provide essential sources of security for families.

Historically speaking, a scarcity of resources creates more systemic problems as housing communities become increasingly segregated, mental health issues surface throughout the community, and households are almost always rendered immobile in their current socioeconomic statuses. Put another way, the infrastructure or distribution mechanisms around public welfare programs are fine. However, the public welfare programs themselves fail to address the root issues that caused them in the first place. Municipal agencies provide assistance, in the form of housing, food share, and healthcare, but fail to provide resources which combat root causes such as lack of mental health services and community building facilities which may include youth centers, dining facilities, and adequately supplied emergency response centers. In describing the results of a social study conducted across six youth and family programs, Hurwich-Reiss et al. expressed, “When the impact of individual risk variables on caregiver well-being was examined, economic hardship and pressure contributed the greatest increase in variance explained in models predicting caregiver depressive symptoms and anxiety” (761). Thus, maintaining that income insecurity has a negative effect on mental health and further causes us to ponder why increased aid for this resource is not allocated by the municipalities.


As expressed above, government assistance programs are essential to guaranteeing the basic needs of Americans who cannot otherwise obtain these resources. Direct cash transfers are not sufficient to create the wellbeing that addressing root causes would. Due to the fact that local governments and municipalities allocate needs based on income and not existential circumstances, aid oftentimes is a resource used for surviving, but not actual thriving in urban communities. Relieving this issue and ensuring that communities yield more positive socioeconomic, mental health, and environmental growth will involve more than local governments’ insistence to offer economic support. Rather, community revitalization would be most effective.


Offering money to solve a community’s problems only scratches the surface. Despite how much government assistance may be allocated to urban communities, there still remains a disproportionate amount of violence, poverty, and low graduation rates which ravage cities that have the potential to become prosperous. Most of this can be contributed to the fact that individuals living in these environments know nothing other than poverty; their ancestors have also depended on these programs which sustain them from month to month, but do not allow them to live comfortably. Citizens in these communities have not been exposed to mentoring programs in fields which pique their interest, they have not received counseling to examine how abuse at home affects their performance in school, and they come from a long line of generational poverty which is hard to climb out of simply by working minimum wage jobs. 

Because municipal assistance can be scarce, the young adults in urban communities are oftentimes led to engage in activities which create violence and result in prison, given that people become influenced by their environment. According to Kelly et al., “Healthcare and social service providers working to address specific parts of this [cycle of violence] easily experience frustration at the seeming intransience of the individual components. The cycle is compounded by the reality that almost all incarcerated women live in marginal economic conditions and communities with minimal amenities” (119).  Underfunded communities are notorious for crime and gang activity which usually bloom as a result of trying to incur money to support families or due to an absence of recreational centers which would otherwise keep young adults motivated and occupied. The cycle continues as students are hindered from completing school due to issues that are going on at home or the environment. In these cases, school does not necessarily foster growth and learning which would be essential for students as they embark on their professional pursuits.

Recommendation ﹣What programs can be implemented?

Right now, municipal agencies are offering assistance that forces communities to survive. If the county leaders such as Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee want communities to thrive, there needs to be rehabilitation, counseling, career mentoring, and city-reshaping programs which address the most prominent issues in urban communities. Year Up, a non-profit organization, commits itself to providing mentoring services on an equitable scale for young adults across varied socioeconomic and racial groups (“About”). Municipal agencies could adopt a replica program by using funding from local governments to create partnerships with professionals in respective communities. These professionals would serve as mentors who would then offer useful skills through shadowing so that members of the communities can experience some of the responsibilities they would be expected to carry out as experts. These skills can then be applied to many careers, and being exposed to many different areas of study would expand individuals’ knowledge about pursuing a professional career and elevating out of their conditional circumstances. These programs would increase urban graduation and higher education rates, allowing for individuals to rise out of poverty through their own hard work and not through a “handout” from the government.


Local governments could attempt to place the responsibility of resource allocation on NGOs and non-profit organizations, but actually making these services provided by municipal agencies would be beneficial in the long-run. This can be achieved through the implementation of city revitalization projects modeled after the YearUp program which offers mentoring services in the form of career-readiness programs which can in turn prepare more residents living under poverty the opportunity to pursue higher paying jobs. When municipal agencies make these resources available, there are more incentives to take advantage of because some private organizations require citizens to pay member fees which oftentimes cannot be met by citizens struggling with other finances. If municipal agencies allocate these services and more students pursue higher degrees, the program will succeed in having less people fall under the marginal poverty line, saving money from government food share and housing programs which can be allocated towards the construction of more community development programs including adequate schooling, cleaner outdoor spaces, and community utilities. Programs such as these would obviously enable communities to yield more social and economic growth, which could shape our urban cities and specific communities that are similar to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Allocating these services would foster a much stronger nation and productive economy.


“About.” Year Up, www.yearup.org/about.

Hakovirta, Mia, et al. “Child Poverty, Child Maintenance and Interactions with Social Assistance Benefits Among Lone Parent Families: A Comparative Analysis.” Journal of Social Policy, vol. 49, no. 1, Jan. 2020, pp. 19-39.

Hurwich-Reiss, Eliana, et al. “Beyond Income: Expanding Our Empirical Toolkit to Better Predict Caregiver Well-Being.” Journal of Child and Family Studies, vol. 28, no. 3, Mar. 2019, pp. 753-64.

Kelly, Patricia J., et al. “A Syndemic Model of Women Incarcerated in Community Jails.” Public Health Nursing, vol. 31, no. 2, Mar. 2014, pp. 118-25.

Quinn, Lois. “Relief and Welfare.” Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, 19 Feb. 2020, emke.uwm.edu/entry/relief-and-welfare/.

Wolff, Marie, et al. “Leadership in a Public Housing Community.” Journal of Health Communication, vol. 9, no. 2, Mar. 2004, pp. 119-26.