Moving the Needle on Poverty: Why Nothing Works, But Everything Might

June 30, 2011
Guest Post

By Mary Kelly Persyn, Associate, Ramsey & Ehrlich


Countless urban neighborhoods are drowning in a miserable mix of poverty, bad schools, food-deserts lacking grocery stores and food-swamps providing an overabundance of fast food (I’ve written previously in this space about health care reform and the power of real food), and a dearth of jobs. Every year, countless non-profit community agencies provide a stunning number of hours of service to these communities. Yet intergenerational poverty maintains its stubborn, iron grip. Time and again, children drop out of school and face pathless futures.

It’s easier to design solutions to discrete problems than to back up and look at an entire social system. And so we try to improve the educational lot of poor children by spending more money per child, by lowering the teacher-to-student ratio, by going “back to basics,” or some other idea intended to leave no child behind.  But think of all that these approaches leave to the side: healthy, fresh food, without which children cannot retain facts and learn how to think; physical education opportunities, without which children are at a much higher risk of obesity; public safety, without which children live amidst the kind of stress and fear that fractures their ability to learn; and child care, without which children lack the kind of consistent adult guidance necessary to sustained learning. And we haven’t even touched health care.

The scenario is similar if an agency tries to move the needle on unemployment by improving only an individual’s job-seeking skills.  We’ve left aside job development (are there even jobs to apply for?); public transit (where is the job, and can the person get there?); child care (who takes care of the children while Mom and Dad are working?); job skills; and -- critically important but often overlooked -- financial management skills like budgeting, saving, and improving credit scores.

We face a situation where nothing seems to work -- the best-executed and best-intended interventions fail to move the needle, year after year after painful year.

But where nothing works, everything might.

Think about it.  What if we tried to solve an entire set of interconnected problems at once?

Sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it?

But we don’t have to wonder whether this will work; we already know it does.  Here are just a few examples from California and elsewhere:

Promise Neighborhoods.  Modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, this federal initiative, currently run out of the Department of Education, makes grants to communities to develop schools with wrap-around social services, “from cradle to career to college.”  The California Assembly recently passed a bill to create a state-level program; Senator Harkin has dropped a bill to make Promise Neighborhoods a permanent federal program. Follow its progress at PolicyLink’s Promise Neighborhoods Institute.

United Way SparkPoint Centers.  The Centers provide integrated financial counseling services to families with the goals of increasing assets, improving credit scores, increasing income, and a reduction of debt-to-income ratio.  I recently wrote about the United Way of the Bay Area’s ninth SparkPoint Center, soon to open in San Francisco’s Mission District.

California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities program.  TCE’s ten-year strategic direction focuses on the importance of place to health.  The program’s milestones involve reducing childhood obesity and youth violence and increasing school attendance and access to quality health care. 

Oakland Unified School District’s African-American Male Achievement Initiative.  The Initiative will create systems that support prevention, intervention, and retention for African-American youth.  The Initiative actively seeks partnership with community organizations, the school district, parents, and foundations to build “full-service community schools” that include employment, language, and health care services alongside education.

Obvious challenges to this approach abound. The attempt to coordinate a large number of agencies could rapidly generate barely controlled chaos, and where those agencies must co-create an agenda and attack plan, patience and time are required in large measures. Funders like to give money to agencies working on discrete, easily measured problems, because it’s easier to quantify and describe clearly bounded outcomes. The kinds of projects we’re talking about have five- and ten- and twenty-year time horizons, and that’s longer than funders want to contemplate. Partnership with, and capacity-building within, the vulnerable communities most in need of these projects is critically important but arduous work.

But a sea change is coming. Boston-based FSG Social Impact Consultants leaders Mark Kramer and John Kania recently formulated a concept they call “collective impact,” denoting cross-sector collaborations that integrate and coordinate a wide range of services and programs focused on a single social challenge. In a blog post titled “Revolutionary Reboot,” I wrote that “collaborative projects powered by collective impact also function like a human body:  organic, proactive as well as reactive, and able to shift constantly in response to the conditions it encounters.” For organic problems, there are organic solutions with collaborative DNA.

You can track related developments at the Healthy Eating Active Living Convergence Partnership; PolicyLink; FSG Social Impact Consultants’ Knowledge Exchange; and many more sites, including my blog, Nothing Works…But Everything Might

[image via Women’s Funding Network]