Sunday, February 8, 2009

Are We Impoverishing The US Anti-Poverty Effort?

My concern, now that we have earmarked multiple trillions of the public purse to bailing out banks and building bridges, is that we will have squeezed the money available to meet the goal established by Barack's new Domestic Policy Council Director, Melody Barnes, to cut poverty in the US in half within 10 years.

In my opinion, that goal will require not only new resources, but a totally new way of approaching the task, both of which may now be in jeopardy.

When Barack's economic stimulus package was first touted, my concern was that there would be so much money floating around that it would require a blunderbuss approach to distributing the money, and that blunderbuss approach would upset the delicate and intricate networks of support that are already doing such amazing work at the grassroots with at risk communities.

That was when I began talking about Offices of Direct Venture Development (, to act as a buffer between well-meaning but over-powerful national and state government efforts and those well-balanced community initiatives.

I saw the Offices not only helping to target and distribute sensitively resources downwards, but also acting as focal points for translating upwards the actual needs of the troops on the ground and their successful experiences, so that policy-makers would be as much informed by community experience as by the input received from Washington think tanks.

Now my worry is that there may be too little money available from the Obama Administration to fund anti-poverty programs - new and existing. So it is that my focus has shifted to finding ways to use what little money there may be, whether from private or public sources, to fund both existing and new programs (government and non-profit), all of which suffer from their own paucity of funding. I have posted a couple of articles about this on the same blog.

Whatever may be the eventual outcome with the availability of resources for the anti-poverty effort, there are other issues which I see complicating any successful effort to achieve the Half in Ten goal.

First, the main emphasis of the mainstream anti-poverty movement has generally been about addressing the causes of poverty. I welcome all the initiatives that are proposed, whether it be improving education, affordable housing or the availability of union membership. But my personal emphasis is on addressing the immediate consequences of poverty.

I have a separate blog which deals with this in more detail: The bottom line is that I want Barack, along with Half in Ten, to commit his Administration to the proposition that every man, woman and child in the US deserves access to adequate food, clothing, housing and healthcare.

By all means, let's do what we can about cause. It may take ten years, it may take thirty. But all it takes is willpower to commit to allowing everybody below the poverty line to have access to adequate food, clothing housing and healthcare - tomorrow.

And money. My four part radio series calculated about $200 billion a year. And that's why I'm worried that we have mortgaged so much of the public purse to bailing out banks and building bridges.

The next wrinkle is that many of the most at risk communities are located in rabidly conservative (both religious and political) parts of the country. It will require enormous delicacy and respect to go into those communities and negotiate with their pride and independence to help them be empowered to help themselves - under a liberal President, most of them despise.

And make no mistake, we let ourselves down as true progressives if we do not meet that challenge, and allow these neighbors of ours the same opportunity to help themselves - on their terms - as we would rabidly liberal communities.

It's precisely these sorts of challenges I relish having the opportunity to meet. I'll be honest. I am actively looking to find or create a role for myself that allows me to help in this fashion. If any reader has any suggestions, please do not be shy about contacting me or passing the message around your own networks.

But whether it is me or someone else, whether it is supported by Barack, his administration, a set of non-profits or private sources, I hope that we take the opportunity of this truly progressive administration to realize the vision of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and eradicate poverty once and for all in this, the richest country the world has ever known.

And I genuinely pray that I am proven wrong, and that the money we have allocated elsewhere does not impoverish the anti-poverty effort in the US.

Offices of Direct Venture Development: Networking for the Marginalized

IDEA: A network of local Offices of Direct Venture Development, established to optimize the impact of President Obama’s economic stimulus and anti-poverty programs on at risk communities, by empowering the individuals, non-profit groups and faith-based charities in those communities to design and fund the plans that will harness those programs, to their best effect, in the communities’ own economic and cultural regeneration and growth.

DETAIL: People in historically disadvantaged communities do not want a hand-out. They may not even need a job. They may already have three jobs.

What they want is the opportunity to stabilize and move forward with dignity, through self-empowerment and social entrepreneurship.

Offices of Direct Venture Development would be financed by a combination of public and private money.

Initially, mobilized by Washington, they would become self-sustaining and community-driven.

I would see them assisting self-empowered regeneration and growth in the following ways:

1) Providing advice and support to individuals in need, much like Citizens’ Advice Bureaus in the UK.

2) Acting as a focal point for advice and the dissemination of financial aid (private and public) for non-profits and faith-based charities, who do the bulk of the supportive work at the grassroots level.

Economic regeneration and growth will not be one-size-fits-all. Policy and aid distribution will need to be tailored to the area in question, and designed by the people in receipt and the organizations supporting them, based on efforts already in progress.

It is important to avoid situations in which an Office such as DVD is seen as dictating solutions to communities and their non-profit and faith-based organizations. Instead, many communities are already well-served by intricate networks of effective support groups, who are already aware of the range of need.

What communities and their support groups want is resources, whether that be in the form of financial support or services such as coalition-building and helping to fill any gaps that may exist.

3) Providing a pro-active networking seed base for individuals and groups in need.

There is a disparity that should be addressed.

For example, when a middle-class family experiences hard times, generally they have the time, the skills and the contacts to find a way to cope.

People in more marginalized situations do not always have those blessings. Offices of DVD would provide a starting point.

4) Acting as the link between grassroots activity and regional and national organizations of support.

There is sometimes a disconnect between what people and groups actually need on the ground, and what Washington and others believe they need.

I would see Offices of DVD, and their personnel, acting as the essential link between at-risk communities and policy-makers.

Initially, translating upwards grassroots accomplishments: it is vital that Washington hears the unvarnished, unfiltered and therefore genuine voice of the least considered, their supporters and their accomplishments.

Additionally, Offices could then disseminate downwards policy and funds (both private and public) in a manner that is respectful, targeted and effective, and which does not unnecessarily intrude on cultural sensibilities and the good work already being done at the grassroots.

CONCLUSION: President Obama has been an effective community organizer. He understands the value of community. He says he wants a grassroots administration.

I believe that a network of Offices of Direct Venture Development would create a new environment of support for community activity.

I believe that the Obama Administration will best be able to achieve his stated goals of renewing the American economy and spirit by harnessing the full power of community ingenuity and empowering communities to heal themselves.