The Great Recession has deeply affected many millions of Americans of all income levels. Indeed, today’s unemployment, under-employment and severe losses in savings and wealth will have long-lasting effects on America’s middle-income and working-poor families.

Economists talk about fears of a “lost generation,” 20-something college graduates, deep in student debt, who may never find their career footing. The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that 6.5 million Americans between ages 16 and 24 are neither in school nor in the workforce. What’s more, many will experience chronic underemployment as adults and never gain the skills needed for well-paying jobs. And on the other end of the spectrum, millions of laid off, 50-something workers, still with so much energy and knowledge to offer, face never again finding good jobs and may have to work into their 70s in low-paying service jobs to make ends meet. It need not be this way. Economic policies focused on growth and the return of industry in America, along with a message and vision of opportunity that inspires, will prevent these alarming trends from continuing.

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As families have suffered, there has been an increasing reliance on support from both government and private charities, many from families that never thought they’d be in such a position. Since 2009, 14.7 million people have been added to the food-stamp rolls while only 194,000 net new jobs have been created. Anecdotally, families who once gave to local food banks and charities report now being the ones in line for help. It’s mind boggling that so many people who have gone to school, worked hard and done what they thought were the right things to do to be secure are now in this position. I think we can all agree that a strong social safety net is an important thing in this country. This recession should engrain in us all that one never knows when they might be the one in need.

As necessary as it is though, a strong social safety net creates a danger, a danger that threatens to prolong the effects of the Great Recession in ways that may transcend generations and leave many on a downward cycle for years to come. As families grow reliant on support in the form of food stamps, disability payments or help from local charities, their incentives change too, and their efforts become focused on preserving that support rather than lifting themselves out of their position. A remarkable and heart-breaking column from liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff this past week described a poor rural community in Kentucky where parents admitted to taking their children out of literacy classes to protect a Supplemental Security Income benefit they received for having a “disabled” child. These parents are effectively preventing their children from ever being able to find meaningful work and thus creating the next generation of welfare recipients.

Studies from social scientists like Charles Murray have shown the harm such programs can cause as the social stigma of welfare erodes, leaving less incentive for recipients to make it a temporary solution and letting it become permanent. Programs designed to do good in the short term wind up doing great harm in the long term. And long-term poverty and the social pathologies that it creates – crime, alcohol and drug abuse, illiteracy, illegitimacy – are the results.

We can pull ourselves out of this and restore the jobs and enterprise that made America great if our leaders can deliver sound economic policy that focuses on creating opportunity rather than expanding the safety net. We need economic policies that promote growth in enterprise and encourage manufacturing and businesses that create good jobs for Americans, jobs that form the cores of towns and communities across our country. And we need rhetoric that inspires Americans with a vision of optimism and opportunity. Last month, the American people gave President Obama more time to fix the economic mess that has tested the American spirit these past four years. I hope he can deliver on both the policies and the message.

Poverty in America is an undeniable problem. But it need not be a permanent or inescapable condition. Research from the Brookings Institution shows your chances of being poor are greatly reduced if you doing the following: graduate from high school, have a full-time job and wait until you are 21 to get married and have children. In the 1990s, I helped lead Republicans to work with President Clinton to reform welfare in a way that preserved the security net but introduced work requirements that created a path back to self-respect, skills enhancement and meaningful employment. And the law promoted the three critical components to avoiding poverty. It resulted in a significant drop in the welfare rolls and transformed lives.

Are we committed to breaking the cycle of dependency and creating a path out of poverty? Instead of focusing on expanding and adding entitlement program, wouldn’t we be better off if our leaders focused on shaping policy and their rhetoric around these three key things that even a liberal think tank agrees are critical? And instead of governing with a message of protecting benefit programs, how about a message that inspires, that focuses on opportunity and creating the conditions for it to thrive? Only economic growth will help lift us out of this rut and prevent it from contaminating future generations.

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