Intentions outdo results at Casey foundation

September 18, 1995|By Kalman R. Hettleman

THE BILLION-dollar Annie E. Casey Foundation, which located in Baltimore last year, has gone far out on a limb, for admirable reasons. Casey has put all its eggs in two high-risk baskets. First, it spends all its money on disadvantaged children. Second, it strives to achieve what it calls ''long-term comprehensive reform.''

''We're not in the business,'' its executive director Doug Nelson says, ''of funding isolated programs. We're looking to change institutions, systems and environments.''

Unfortunately, this courageous strategy has been flawed in its implementation and has so far produced disappointing results. But Casey, with a 1995 grants budget of $78 million, is sticking with it.

Since the late 1980s, the largest share of Casey money has been spent on a series of multi-state, multi-year ''system reform'' projects. The lives of poor children were to be dramatically improved by eliminating fragmentation and irrationality in the delivery of services. State and local ''collaboratives'' of public and private leaders were to bring more creative and efficient use of existing resources.

''New Futures'' for cities

In its flagship project, ''New Futures,'' five cities each received an average of $10 million over five years. However, a recent evaluation found that although high-level collaboration occurred, outcomes for at-risk children improved very little.

In the ''Child Welfare Initiative'' begun in 1988, Maryland was the most heralded site. Some good things happened. A state Subcabinet for Children, Youth and Families was created, and inter-agency funding pools and local planning were mandated. Pilot efforts in Prince George's County and in Baltimore reduced out-of-state and foster-care placements. Yet agencies are still generally doing business as usual, and seven years after launching, the Subcabinet is still refining its ''vision and mission'' statement.

While Casey has won acclaim for ''Kids Count,'' a state-by-state statistical profile of the plight of America's children, other system-reform projects have also floundered. And, in the process, more has been lost than merely good intentions gone astray.

Lack of success is not the issue. Other foundations -- including Ford, Rockefeller and Pew -- have been similarly frustrated. But Casey more than others oversold the idea that the life chances of impoverished children can be transformed by restructuring shrinking resources, particularly through good social-services reforms which neglect economic issues and other root causes.

In an interview in his office, I asked Mr. Nelson whether such a premise didn't play into the hands of federal and state budget-slashers. ''That criticism,'' he said, is ''well-taken. There's only so much juice you can squeeze out of the orange. We didn't realize how hard it was to change outcomes. Broader approaches and access for families to income and work are definitely needed.''

The lessons learned, he says, are reflected in two new Casey projects. ''Rebuilding Communities'' offers seven-year grants to neighborhood groups. The goal is self-sufficiency through self-governance and ''comprehensive restructuring of resources.'' The ''Jobs Initiative'' will enable several cities to combine model job-creation programs with human-services reforms.

But these projects also rely unwisely on the romanticized and politically correct ideal of decentralized planning and restructuring. The social-policy writer Nicholas Lemann observed last year that even though ''bottom-up planning, coordination of programs neighborhood development'' have repeatedly failed over the past 30 years to revive inner-city communities, ''these ideas are still being referred to as new.''

Casey's signature projects fall into this trap. Despite good intentions, distressed inner-city communities will be stuck as often before -- for example, in the 1970s Model Cities program -- with more process than substance. They'll be spinning wheels trying to repackage the obvious case for more jobs, teachers, drug treatment, police, family support, health services and housing.

What could Casey do differently? Go farther down the road started in the Jobs Initiative and document the best models in each human-service area. Much more is known about how to meet the basic needs of low-income children than conservative budget-cutters want to admit. And nowhere have we tried the best models all at once on a sufficient scale that could truly

transform the inner-city environment.

Such demonstrations will cost a lot more money than any foundation has, as Mr. Nelson points out, but Casey could advocate and plant seed money. More than anything else, Casey should pull back from creating unrealistic expectations about what local communities can do by themselves, without more federal and state aid and larger changes in the country's economy and social values.

Mr. Nelson's commitment to these goals is beyond doubt. Mighty Casey is still at bat and, with some adjustments in its swing, might yet hit a home run.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former Maryland secretary of human resources and Baltimore director of social services. In 1992-1994 he served on the board of the Casey-initiated ''Family Preservation Initiative.''

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