By almost any measure, the United States is the richest nation in history. Yet poverty persists. Tens of billions of dollars a year are donated in hopes of relieving suffering, but the very size and complexity of the efforts can be daunting. Donors look for the best poverty-fighting programs, but finding them can be difficult, and much well-intentioned giving has little to show for its benevolence.
To assist donors in this urgent work, I’ve written a new guidebook for The Philanthropy Roundtable, Helping People to Help Themselves. While it is not exhaustive in detailing all that is being done to assist the poor, it does sketch out several critical, overarching principles that funders should bear in mind, and it also has chapters highlighting some of the best work addressed to particular challenges, such as health care, worker training, substance abuse, and access to college.
In addition to explaining the issues involved, the book also depicts some of the most effective grantees in each field. For no matter how difficult the problem, there are groups who are achieving dramatic success in turning lives around and reducing suffering. Wise funders will study the reasons for their success and either consider supporting them or replicating similar programs in other locales.
Certain fundamental principles recur throughout the book because they are critical to any effort to help the poor. Conversely, neglecting them will doom even the most well-intentioned philanthropy. First, respect the dignity of the poor by recognizing the role that personal responsibility must play in their lives. The ideal is to help people to help themselves, and to avoid a situation in which the poor end up dependent on public or private programs.
Challenging the poor to take responsibility for their lives is also a challenge to donors, who can be tempted to focus on their own good intentions rather than the long-term prospects of those they seek to help. But it is no compliment to imply that a person in need can do nothing to help himself or others. By contrast, to tell poor people that they can succeed at work, break a destructive habit, go to college, or otherwise advance themselves is not only complimentary but liberating.
The need to encourage personal responsibility leads naturally to a second principle: The greatest anti-poverty program is a job. Persons with low incomes sometimes need help finding jobs and developing work skills, but they and those who help them must stay focused tightly on the goal of gainful employment for all the able-bodied. Encouraging work was the fundamental reason for the dramatic success of welfare reform, and in both governmental and private programs it is critical that work be stressed.
Now let us see these two principles in action as we examine anti-poverty programs that emphasize personal responsibility and work.
A Valuable Callus
The callus between Napoleon Webb’s right thumb and forefinger is only a little smaller than the smile on his face. Tough and thick from mopping floors at the homeless shelter, Webb’s hands are a mark of pride.
“I’m left-handed, and I guess it has something to do with the way I sweep,” he explains, glad to be asked. Because of the callus, the middle-aged Webb’s sweeping days are almost over. He is in his last month at the Doe Fund’s innovative work program, Ready, Willing & Able (RW&A). Having finished nine months of training, he will soon transfer to another Doe enterprise, Pest@Rest.
In 1989, RW&A landed its first city contract under New York Mayor Ed Koch. Since then it has “graduated” 1,500 formerly homeless adults, mostly males with substance-abuse problems who have spent time in prison. Private employment is mandatory, and graduates must pay for their own apartment. Approximately 67 percent are still privately employed a year after graduation.
In addition, RW&A offers counseling, classes, life-skills workshops, plus access to Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous. Participants must undergo twice-a-week drug testing. They earn up to $6.50 an hour but must pay $65 a week in rent and put another $30 into a savings account. Upon graduation, Doe matches their savings. “We have rules,” says Doe founder and president George McDonald. “This is not just a place for free beds.” “The regular urine test might shock liberals, but it’s basic to our success,” adds Isabel McDevitt, Doe’s director of community affairs. “We love them enough to believe they can stay clean.”
As with most arrivals, Webb’s first job was cleaning the streets and sidewalks on which he used to sleep. As part of its Community Improvement Project, RW&A contracts with the city government, local Business Improvement Districts, community trusts, and neighborhood associations. Its workers clean more than 100 miles of New York streets every week.
After gaining experience, Webb began to drive the vans that transport the work crews. Other advanced positions include housing rehabilitation, meal preparation, mailroom duties, and data entry. Now he wears the bright blue uniform of Pest@Rest. “There’s a lot you have to know,” explains the bespectacled Webb, finishing his lunch at Doe’s 400-bed Peter Jay Sharp Center for Opportunity in Brooklyn.
At the next table, Stanislaw Roszczeda and Joseph Quow are wearing morale-building RW&A jumpsuits with an American flag patch on the shoulder. They are both about Webb’s age. They have been in other homeless shelters but prefer RW&A. “You get a job so you can have some money,” says Roszczeda with a Czech accent. “This place gets you somewhere,” adds Quow, who hails from the West Indies. “After six months, you’ve got a good résumé.”
“Other shelters are drug-infested, and there’s robbing and stealing,” says Stanley Bristow, a graduate now employed as a Doe driver. “I did three and a half years in prison for dealing drugs, but this place has gotten me a commercial driver’s license. Someday I hope to drive a city bus.”
Personal Responsibility Motivates
Programs that emphasize personal responsibility are enormously effective in helping people to help themselves. “I always thought it was sad how we treated poor people” in this country, says Joanne Beyer, former president of the Scaife Family Foundation. “We had such low expectations. But personal responsibility does work.” Religiously based programs seem particularly good at fostering people’s inner dignity, giving them the strength they need to confront life. Helping people to help themselves means changing souls.
To Robert L. Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington, D.C., personal responsibility is a matter of black pride. “Conveniently airbrushed from the portrait of black America are the remarkable models of self-help—accomplishments of black entrepreneurs and mutual aid societies even during years of the most brutal racial repression and slavery,” Woodson says. Personal responsibility and entrepreneurship “could provide today’s youths with the pride in their heritage and an adaptable model that could guide their futures.” Woodson catalogues many such accomplishments in his book The Triumphs of Joseph: How Today’s Community Healers Are Reviving Our Streets and Neighborhoods.
Glenn Loury, an African-American scholar at Boston University, agrees. The “fundamental assumption” behind our political discourse on poverty is that the problems of the poor only involve monetary issues, yet such a limited debate fails “to engage questions of personal morality, character, and values.”
“We are going to have to look . . . to nongovernmental agencies of moral and cultural development in particular communities to take on the burden of promoting behavioral change,” he adds. “They seek to shape the ways in which individuals conceive of their duties to themselves, of the obligations owed mutually one to another, and, indeed, of their responsibilities before God.”
Myron Magnet, editor of City Journal, argues that all that is lacking is motivation. “The poor already have the strenuous but genuine opportunity for escaping poverty,” but too often “they lack the inner resources to embrace their chance,” he says. “The required solution is for the poor to take responsibility for themselves, not to be made dependent on programs and exempted from personal responsibility.”
Magnet is a conservative. George McDonald is a liberal. Traveling different roads, they have arrived at the same conclusion.
McDonald’s Doe Fund, created in 1985, now runs three shelters in New York and another in Jersey City. Its supporters include the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Clark Foundation, the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, the Starr Foundation, the Marvin and Donna Schwartz Foundation, the Carson Family Charitable Trust Fund, and the Achelis & Bodman Foundations.
The Fund was named after a homeless woman known only as Mama Doe who froze to death on Christmas Eve in 1985 after the police locked her out of Grand Central Station. In the early 1980s, McDonald had befriended Doe while spending 700 consecutive nights handing out food to the homeless in and around Grand Central. When he saw her picture in the New York Daily News, she was wearing a scarf he’d given her. “I suddenly realized giving away food and clothing wasn’t enough,” he says. “I had to do more.”
McDonald helped run Senator Ted Kennedy’s 1980 campaign for president. During the 1980s, McDonald repeatedly ran for Congress as a forceful advocate for the homeless. He never won. In 1989 he became a member of Mayor David Dinkins’ Commission on the Homeless, helping chairman Andrew Cuomo write the final report. The document—which became quite controversial—concluded that most single adults were in New York homeless shelters not because they lacked housing, but because of drug addiction, mental illness, and other dysfunctional behavior. The report recommended more shelters along the Doe model, balancing “rights and responsibilities.” When Cuomo became U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton, he contracted with Doe to work with him on homelessness.
“What made this country?” asks McDonald rhetorically. “Whatever your background, you can make it here if God blesses you with the ability. All we offer at Doe and RW&A is opportunity. We serve the hardest of the hard. And it works. When they’re finished, all they need is a program called ‘America.’”
The principles of this sort of “compassionate conservatism,” and its long history in practice, have been well articulated by Marvin Olasky, a University of Texas professor, in his book The Tragedy of American Compassion. “To renew American compassion, we must stop talking about ‘the poor’ as an abstract phenomenon haunting society and start talking in practical, ground-level, concrete, individual terms about how to help,” Olasky writes in his new book, Renewing American Compassion. “By putting people to work, effective compassion helps create workers. By giving applicants something to care for, it helps create people who care. By treating people as unique individuals, it helps restore humanity and dignity.”
Introducing people to the dignity of work, says Olasky, makes them stakeholders in society. “One applicant who completed a tough program summarized what his new home meant to him: ‘We are poor, but we have something that is ours. When you use your own blood, sweat, and tears, it’s part of your soul. You stand and say “I did it.”’
“To renew American compassion,” Olasky concludes, we must give “with our heads as well as our hearts.” To assist donors with such giving, the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, publishes a valuable Guide to Effective Compassion. The Institute also hosts an online database of nonprofits that adhere to the Olasky principles. Its new Center for Effective Compassion grants an annual Samaritan Award to the nonprofit that best exemplifies its principles. In 2003, the W.H. Brady Foundation awarded the Center a grant of $1 million to expand this work.
Another Olasky-inspired organization is the Center for Renewal in Houston. Founded by Barbara Elliott, a former journalist and Reagan White House staffer, the Center offers leadership training and technical assistance to faith-based nonprofits, serving as an intermediary between grantees and donors. Intermediaries like the Center for Renewal “also perform the valuable service of identifying community problem-solvers that policymakers and philanthropists may not know,” says Amy Sherman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Another online clearinghouse is the Faith and Service Technical Education Network, funded by Pew and run by the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis. (For more on intermediaries, see “Scaling Up FBOs,” July/August 2002.)
Personal responsibility is also key to maintaining marriages and family life, two critical supports for people rising up from poverty, but that raises a sprawling topic that will be dealt with in another Philanthropy Roundtable book later this year. For now, let’s reiterate that the first question philanthropists seeking to aid the poor should ask is, “What does this program do to promote personal responsibility?” The second question should be, “What does this program do to promote work?”—a question to which we now turn.
Promoting Work by the Poor
In jeans, tennis shoes, and polo shirt, Eric Jordan was standing at an orientation session at STRIVE-Baltimore, an intensive job-readiness and placement service. He had been out of prison a week after spending two decades behind bars for drugs and armed robbery. At age 40, he was trying to pick up the thread of his life.
Joe Jones was running the session. He asked the 50 members of the class whether they thought Jordan could be hired by the Baltimore Ravens, the city’s NFL franchise. “No,” they chanted in unison.
“Of course not!” said Jones. “Look at how he’s dressed. You need a shirt, tie, and nice pair of slacks for a job interview. At STRIVE, you have to show up every day as if you were interviewing for a job. Because you are.”
“The next day I went out and got myself a shirt, slacks, and tie,” says Jordan, “and I wore them every day after that.” He still wears them today—as a marketing representative for United Equity Mortgage in Towson, Maryland.
STRIVE (Support and Training Result In Valuable Employees) was created at the East Harlem Employment Service in 1985. It expanded in New York and eventually developed a network of 21 affiliates across the United States and in London. Most have support from local philanthropies. STRIVE-Baltimore is funded by the Abell Foundation, among others. “Abell told me to go look at what STRIVE was doing in New York,” says Jones, who was trying to create his own job program in Baltimore. “When I told them how well it worked, they immediately founded one here.”
STRIVE-Baltimore operates out of the Center for Fathers, Families, and Workforce Development, which is separately funded by the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. It targets hard-to-employ men and women. “Most of our people have multiple barriers to employment: welfare, criminal records, child-support arrearages, homelessness, and substance abuse,” says Jones. “A lot of folks out there, they say they want to work, but . . . .” He trails off.
STRIVE’s three-week workshop helps applicants develop good workplace appearance and behavior. Hostility is reduced, self-discipline fostered, and clients steered toward realistic goals. Participants train in résumé writing, interviewing, and telephone skills. Then they are monitored for the next two years. In 2003, STRIVE-Baltimore had 398 graduates. When they arrived at STRIVE, 21 percent had felony convictions, 23 percent had misdemeanor convictions, and 54 percent had never earned a high school diploma. Still, STRIVE managed to place 75 percent of them in jobs averaging $8.19 per hour. After six months, 70 percent of those placed were still working. Cost per participant: $3,000.
“Businesses say, ‘Give me an employee who can show up, dress right, and has a good attitude,’” explains Jones, and “we get them to that point.” Jordan adds, “When I first came home from prison, I didn’t know where to get started. Without STRIVE, I don’t know where I’d be now. They don’t stop. I love ’em. I’m blessed.”
“Most people are poor in the United States because they either do not work or work too few hours to move themselves and their children out of poverty.” So say former White House welfare-policy advisor Ron Haskins, now a senior consultant to the Annie E. Casey Foundation and a Brookings Institution senior fellow, and Isabel Sawhill, Brookings’ vice president for economic studies.
“The heads of poor families with children worked only half as many hours, on average, as the heads of nonpoor families with children in 2001,” they continue. “The gap in the work hours of poor and nonpoor families with children is observed in good economic years as well as bad.” Although “the state of the economy and the availability of jobs surely play some role,” they “are not the primary reasons for these differences in work effort.”
Haskins and Sawhill estimated what would happen if all non-elderly and non-disabled heads of poor families worked full time, receiving the same hourly wage they currently earn: The poverty rate would be cut in half. Encouraging the poor to work more hours may be the best way to reduce poverty, they conclude.
No wonder, then, that encouraging work was central to the success of the landmark federal welfare reform act signed by President Clinton in 1996, which “ended welfare as we know it.” To see why, look at the series of remarkable experiments that Wisconsin began in 1986. These precursors to national welfare reform were launched by then-Governor Tommy Thompson, who experimented broadly, trying to encourage responsible behavior among the poor. Welfare recipients lost their benefits if their children dropped out of school. They did not receive greater benefits if they had additional children out of wedlock. “Wisconsin Works” also required recipients to work for their benefits. As a result, the state’s welfare rolls fell from over 96,000 in 1985 to fewer than 11,000 in 2004. It was “the most thoroughgoing change in social policy” in the last quarter-century, says welfare expert David Dodenhoff.
“The effects of the reforms seem remarkably positive,” writes NYU welfare expert Lawrence Mead in Government Matters: Welfare Reform in Wisconsin. “Not only did dependency plummet, but work levels among low-income adults soared while poverty fell.” Surveying its former caseload in 1998, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development found that 58 percent of persons who left the rolls were employed and 82 percent had been employed. Most of these people had regular, not seasonal or temporary, jobs. They averaged 35 hours a week and $7.95 per hour. Another study by the state’s Legislative Audit Bureau found 34 percent of former welfare recipients claimed incomes above the poverty line—47 percent if state and federal Earned Income Tax Credits were included. “It made all the difference whether a welfare-leaver was working or not,” says Mead. Former Wisconsin welfare recipients “who worked all year in 1998 earned an average of $16,839, or well above the poverty line for a mother and two children. Adding in tax credits, the total rises to almost $21,000.”
Creeping Job Training-ism
Yet even today, Wisconsin officials find it difficult to avoid creeping “job training-ism”—the old habit of allowing welfare recipients to train endlessly for work instead of taking real jobs. “Though a majority of W-2 participants are engaged in some sort of work activity, most are also engaged in education and training,” Dodenhoff notes in a 2003 report written for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI). “The state must insist on closer monitoring and enforcement” of work requirements. “We’re never going back to a system of entitlements” that has no requirement to work, says James H. Miller, president of WPRI. “But the bureaucracy is slowly going back to diluting the idea of work.”
WPRI and the Hudson Institute spent considerable time studying Wisconsin welfare reform. Founded in 1987, WPRI’s supporters include the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee. Hudson’s Welfare Policy Center, based in Madison, also received support from Bradley and the Buford Foundation in Dallas, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan, and the Foundation for the Mid South in Jackson, Mississippi. Funding such research can help guide public and private efforts to a better understanding of what will and will not help to raise people out of poverty.
Work or Job Training?
“One of the disappointments about the welfare reform debate to me has been how much it’s education/training versus work as a way out of poverty,” says Julie Kerksick, executive director of Milwaukee’s New Hope Project. “I really believe in work first. I just don’t think it should be work only.”
A 2001 evaluation of welfare-to-work strategies by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation in New York found that welfare recipients’ earnings increased only $1,300 over five years if they were placed in education and training programs, as opposed to $2,900 when they went immediately into work programs. “Job-search-first programs produced larger immediate gains and, in the medium term, led to larger gains for more disadvantaged groups such as people without a high school credential,” according to another study by Manpower.
In 1993 Abt Associates surveyed 17,000 job-training applicants and found that classroom and on-the-job training programs increased women’s hourly wages by only 3 percent and actually decreased men’s wages. When employers were asked the three top traits they seek in entry-level applicants, they cited positive work attitude (66 percent), reliability (66 percent), and punctuality (31 percent). “Having all the necessary training” ranked at the bottom (4 percent).
Job-training programs “cannot provide the work experience that must be built on to achieve self-sufficiency,” insist Robert Rector and Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation; “the best job-training program is a job.” Jon Hobbs of the American Institute for Full Employment agrees: “It’s not that education and training aren’t important, but first get people into a job, then worry about education and training. Use the job to determine educational needs. That’s much more essential than sitting around a classroom asking, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’”
One group worth studying for its success in promoting work is Goodwill Industries International, which has a network of 207 community-based organizations in 25 countries that provide employment services and job training to people with workplace disadvantages and disabilities. (See Martin Morse Wooster’s “Goodwill Hunting,” January/February 2002.) As Goodwill puts it, “we help people overcome barriers to employment and become independent, tax-paying members of their communities.” To fund its mission, Goodwill collects donated clothing and household goods and sells them at 1,900 retail outlets. Goodwill also contracts labor services to business and government and receives both government and foundation funding. In 2003, Goodwill served 616,830 clients.
Similarly, the Transitional Work Corporation in Philadelphia is a partnership between the Pew Charitable Trusts, Public/Private Ventures, and the city and state governments. This secular, work-based program is designed to get long-term welfare recipients into the regular labor market. Its highly supervised jobs, most of them in other local nonprofits and government agencies, pay minimum wage for 25 hours a week. Recipients also receive 10 hours of weekly, unpaid “wraparound” training. More than 75 percent of those who complete the program find and keep jobs. “Having our people in transitional work gives us a better chance to get to know them,” says president Richard Greenwald, and “working makes people eligible for more work.” Transitional Work Corporation receives support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Joyce Foundation in Chicago.
A Boston nonprofit, Year Up, offers at-risk but motivated, mostly low-income men an intensive, one-year training and corporate-internship program—preparing them for a technology-driven economy in which unskilled labor is not much in demand. Participants are interviewed twice and must sign a 12-page agreement that warns they’ll be sanctioned for drug use and being late for classes. Year Up won a Manhattan Institute Social Entrepreneurship Award in 2003.
Headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Jobs Partnership is a faith-based organization that trains workers, connects them with employers, and offers continuing support to those who find jobs. The Partnership has expanded to more than 20 other cities. “Our 12-week training is based on biblical principles to help people understand what it takes to succeed,” says CEO David Spickard. “Every one of our students is mentored. You don’t just get a job but community support.” The Jobs Partnership has served 1,800 people, about 65 percent of whom were on public assistance. More than 80 percent of its students are still employed one year after graduation.
Community and faith-based organizations have a desire to serve a much larger portion of the population, says Stephen V. Monsma, author of Putting Faith in Partnerships: Welfare-to-Work in Four Cities. They have real growth potential if donors want to support their expansion and replication.
Strangely enough, engaging employers is something of a challenge for workforce-development organizations. “In fact, most employers know very little about employment and training programs and many do not take advantage of their services,” says Carol Clymer, author of a 2003 Rockefeller Foundation report. “In a time of changing demographics and impending shortages of skilled workers,” nonprofits can “diminish the risk of hiring employees with limited knowledge of English, lack of education, or erratic work histories, and often do much more at little cost to employers.”
Spickard, CEO of the Jobs Partnership, says many employers don’t entirely understand what a group like his can provide. “We don’t ask them for help, we offer it,” he says. “What kind of jobs do they need filled? What kind of services can we offer? Do they need transportation? Child care? In the end, they ask us, ‘You mean we get this for free?’”
Through relentless experimentation and accepting hard lessons, job development programs such as the Transition Work Corporation, the Jobs Partnership, Goodwill Industries, and the American Institute for Full Employment have hit upon a successful formula. They have added immeasurably to the success of welfare reform. But backsliding is always a temptation. For donors and grantees alike, there is still much work to be done, and all of us need to be challenged to excel.
Michael E. Hartmann is director of research and evaluation at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. This article is adapted from Helping People to Help Themselves: A Guide for Donors, published by The Philanthropy Roundtable, where Hartmann served as a visiting fellow.