The Census Bureau’s most recent poverty data was released last week. Predictably, vast expenditures on anti-poverty programs have not budged the numbers: more than 45 million Americans are living in poverty.

A clue as to why our nation’s $24-trillion War on Poverty has failed to empower the poor to rise to self-sufficiency can be found in a four-letter word: work.

Although work has played a key role in our nation’s legacy of upward mobility and the realization of the American Dream, government anti-poverty programs by and large fail to promote work.

The vast majority of the government’s means-tested welfare programs include no type of work requirement for able-bodied adults. Not only does a work requirement encourage self-sufficiency, but it stands as a gatekeeper to ensure that those truly in need receive assistance while others find a way forward toward self-sufficiency.

Within today’s welfare system, the most vulnerable sector of the population faces debilitating disincentives toward work and self-sufficiency.

In the “real world,” outside the insulated policy arena, the principles of the dignity of work and the empowering notion of reciprocity have long been embraced by neighborhood leaders who have guided men and women in low-income communities to reclaim and revitalize their lives and families.

Confronting the most entrenched and debilitating types of poverty and investing in those striving to break free from the bonds of addiction, those neighborhood healers consistently require their program participants to give back in whatever way they can.

Pastor Shirley Holloway’s House of Help/City of Hope has equipped hundreds of individuals in the Washington, D.C., area to re-establish their lives and families while contributing in some way to the ministry. In her words: “Compassion without expectation is enablement [of dysfunction].”

In Step 13, a program for homeless addicts and alcoholics in Colorado, reciprocity means residents working with an in-house company or contributing to the rent with earnings from outside work. As the men put their lives together again, they gradually take on greater responsibilities and rise from barracks-style lodging to a private room, and then to an apartment—the last step before independent living and the beginning of a career.

Program graduates have emerged as caring spouses and parents, responsible employees, and even successful businessmen.

In Indianapolis, a church-based “Boot Camp for Men” launched by Pastor Darryl Webster connected Kurt Moore, a former felon with no prospects for a job, with the owner of a local auto shop who employed him to wash cars.

Later, this mentor encouraged Moore to create an entrepreneurial venture of his own and provided an old used van for a “mobile car wash” company. As Moore established a reputation for reliable service, he was contracted by numerous car dealers in the area. At an anti-poverty conference hosted by the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE) last July, it was announced that Moore had purchased his first building for his business, which now employs more than 20 residents of his low-income community.

Bob Woodson, the president and founder of CNE, which, for 35 years, has supported the outreach of such programs and documented their success in empowering the disadvantaged, is a no-nonsense visionary who focuses on outcomes and knows that results are most critical among those whose lives and futures hang in the balance.

In his words: “The foundation of any healthy relationship is reciprocity. Grassroots people instinctively know that. They always help people with the expectation that people have to give for what they receive, because they know that their dignity will be protected.”