In contrast to the myriad of best-selling business books that tell readers how they too can strike it rich, Gary MacDougal tells the story of how he, a self-made millionaire, used his power and influence to up-end the poverty industry in Illinois. In the process, he and Governor Jim Edgar inspired the largest reorganization of that state’s government since 1900.
To understand the story, we must first understand its protagonist. Gary MacDougal is first of all a businessman. As chairman and CEO of Mark Controls Corporation from 1969 to 1987, he led a company whose investors earned an average growth of 17 percent per year. His business acumen landed him a spot on numerous corporate boards, including a longstanding directorship at United Parcel Service.
MacDougal also possesses a long history of involvement in philanthropic endeavors. Notably, each of his major foundation directorships dealt primarily with poverty and disadvantaged children’s issues. His posts included board slots at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the W. T. Grant Foundation, and the Russell Sage Foundation, where he served as chairman.
Following his successful stint as assistant campaign manager of George Bush’s victorious 1988 White House bid, MacDougal lobbied to become the Bush administration’s secretary of Health and Human Services. He was considered a candidate for the HHS job until campaign aide George W. Bush was tasked with informing him that he had “a pigmentation problem” (translation: the cabinet needed diversity).
In short order, MacDougal traded in his HHS dream for a new one in which he envisioned becoming the GOP’s social policy champion, a la the Democrats’ Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Encouraged by Lee Atwater and Illinois’s GOP leadership to run for the U.S. Senate, MacDougal got off to an impressive start before Lynn Martin secured President Bush’s blessing for the nomination. MacDougal graciously bowed out.
After the 1990 Illinois elections, and following a period of trotting the globe and circling Washington’s beltway, MacDougal discovered opportunity in the unlikeliest of places—the dilapidated housing projects in his hometown of Chicago. Introduced to the residents of these projects by an inner-city pastor, MacDougal now had a specific target against which to direct his protean energies. He relentlessly pursued newly elected governor Jim Edgar to appoint a task force whose objective would be nothing less than the transformation of Illinois’s human service delivery.
Following numerous exchanges, Governor Edgar conceded that the titanic human services infrastructure in his state—26,000 people, $10 billion in annual appropriations—was riskier to ignore than overhaul. Edgar would later remark that the best way to describe MacDougal is “tenacious.” Said Edgar, he “wouldn’t go away. He kept coming around and talking about the need to reform welfare and human services, so finally I decided to let him go ahead and see what he could do.”
MacDougal was appointed chairman of the Governor’s Task Force on Human Services Reform in 1993, a post he would hold until the reform effort was completed in 1997. The task force’s activities, which consume most of his book’s 384 pages, offer a blueprint for policy planning, program innovation, and the politicking essential to any significant governmental reform effort.
Consistent with the common corporate practice of starting with consumer research, MacDougal’s first order of business was to learn what the welfare system was like from the perspective of its “customers.” In what are perhaps the most compelling parts of the book, MacDougal tells of his first days as task force head spent with “the ladies in the backyard,” an informal group of welfare recipients who lived in Chicago’s poorest neighborhood.
A discovery process that began with “the ladies in the backyard” continued with recipients in other parts of the state, government staff from a half dozen human services agencies, employers, advocates, and national policy experts. The author carefully describes how the task force went about identifying each major barrier to employment, and the strategies Illinois adopted to meet them head-on.
As long as there have been welfare reform efforts, there have been critics who charge that welfare-to-work forces those in poverty into hamburger-flipping jobs in the low-wage marketplace. But these critics are blind to the numerous success stories of families who have been integrated back into society, often into well-paying positions. This book tells many of these stories, without sugar-coating the challenges that remain.
There is a danger too not of the underclass rejoining society but of the overclass seceding from it, or at least giving up on the least among us. Gary MacDougal offers us a different model.
Jay Hein is director of the Welfare Policy Center at the Hudson Institute.