Give Oprah credit for throwing money at a problem

September 05, 1996|By Clarence Page

CHICAGO -- There are some things even Oprah Winfrey's money can't buy.

In September, 1994, Chicago's most famous woman announced in a heavily covered news conference than she was going to commit as much as $6 million of her own wealth to help move 100 welfare families to the world of work and financial independence.

It seemed like a terrific idea. To help the families break out of the cycle of poverty, the program would offer job training, health care, family and financial counseling and educational assistance.

But two years and $1.3 million later (including $843,000 of Oprah's dollars), only five families have completed the program. Ms. Winfrey is calling a temporary halt to it, and her future involvement is uncertain.

''I spent nearly a million dollars on the program, most of it going to development and administrative costs,'' she said in a prepared statement. ''That was never my intention. I now want to figure out with the help of people who understand this better than I, how to directly reach the families in a way that allows them to become self-reliant.''

No government red tape

What went wrong? If any group should have succeeded, this was it. The participants were highly motivated and free of drugs and alcohol. The funding was generous, private and free of government red tape.

Unfortunately, this particular program offers a good example of how administrative costs can overwhelm well-intentioned private efforts as badly as they tie up government programs.

Ms. Winfrey's efforts began modestly and just grew. She helped two families move out of public housing, including the family of a boy named Kalvin, whom she met in 1993 while filming her TV adaptation of Alex Kotlowitz's book, ''There are No Children Here.''

That experience led her to reach out to a larger group of people in whom she could help ''destroy the welfare mentality.''

The result was Families for a Better Life, run by the Jane Addams Hull House Association, a century-old not-for-profit in Chicago that virtually founded modern social work.

Screened too much

What happened? Maybe they screened too much. A close examination of the program suggests to me that maybe its administrators played it a little too safe. Most of the applicants were eliminated during the screening process. This weeding-out approach meshed well with Ms. Winfrey's positive-mental-attitude approach to life, but it also may explain why so much of her money was sucked up by administrative costs.

Out of some 1,600 applicants, only 19 were picked for the final round of drug and alcohol tests and psychological assessments. Of this group, a final pilot group of seven families was selected as sufficiently free of drugs and energized with motivation.

Out those seven, two dropped out. One because she was pregnant and the other to pursue a full-time college curriculum.

Of the five who completed the program, four were receiving Aid to Families With Dependent Children at the beginning of the program. Four were also working at least part-time and the other was volunteering at a neighborhood day care. She was the only one of the five who was still receiving aid at the program's end.

Ms. Winfrey was actively involved in helping to select the families, develop the curriculum and monitor the progress participants were making.

Problems of attitude

''The screening process took longer than we expected,'' Gordon Johnson, director of Hull House, said. ''But we also wanted to be careful to eliminate those whose problems were something other than attitude, problems other programs are better equipped to confront.''

Of those who made it through the program, Mr. Johnson was upbeat. ''Their attitudes were totally different when they came in compared to when they left,'' he said. He hopes to meet with Ms. Winfrey soon and persuade her to continue the program.

Unfortunately, attitude is a quality that is difficult to measure. You either have the ''right'' one or you don't. Administrators tried their level best to eliminate everybody who was held back in poverty by anything other than their own attitude.

Hard cases (the addicted, the poorly motivated, the directionless) were the first to go. Unfortunately, by the time the program's administrators finished eliminating they were left with a sample far short of Ms. Winfrey's initially stated goals.

Yes, if there's one thing even Oprah's money can't buy it is a simple solution to the nation's poverty problems. One of the program's advisers, Harvard's William Julius Wilson, notes in his new book, ''When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor,'' that neither the political left, which tends to blame poverty on racism or structural changes in the economy, or the right, which tends to blame moral values, has a lock on the answer to the problem. It is all these things and more.

Part of it is attitude. Part of it is other things. Poverty remains a puzzle. Oprah Winfrey has not found the answer yet. But at least she's asking the right questions.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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