Secret to fighting poverty A few key individuals can make a difference

October 26, 1997|By Lisbeth B. Schorr

Why, in the midst of a vibrant economy, are so many Americans still mired in concentrated poverty?

For Americans turned off on government, the answer long has been that nobody knows what to do about the great underclass maladies of joblessness, single-parent families, school failure, substance abuse and violence.

In fact, we do know what to do on a small scale. Here and there, innovative programs have succeeded in changing life trajectories and setting children and families on the road to success.

The predicament is that successful programs are seldom sustained. When efforts are made to spread them, to bring them into the mainstream, they are strangled by red tape, rigid bureaucracies and archaic financing.

I set out in search of the people and places that had beaten the odds and had transformed not just a school but a school system, not just a social agency but a neighborhood, not just a few individuals but whole populations.

The secret of these successes? A few key people had the insight, courage and influence to climb out of old ruts and make fundamental changes on three fronts:

First, they achieved a new balance between flexibility at the front lines and accountability for the expenditure of public funds. We always have known that in the course of home visiting or providing prenatal care or even job training, people working on ,, the front lines cannot be constrained by narrow protocols or circumscribed job descriptions. They must be able to respond, whether to a housing crisis or the need for child care or drug treatment. What we now are learning is that if front-line professionals and agencies are to be able to do whatever it takes to help within mainstream systems, the systems must support their flexibility by judging them by their results rather than for their compliance with a maze of rules.

Second, successful efforts establish partnerships with residents and community organizations that act more like families than bureaucracies. One national pioneer is Los Angeles County, which has contracted with 25 networks of grass-roots community organizations, including churches, Boys and Girls clubs and day care centers.

These are the organizations, says Peter Digre, director of the county Department of Children and Family Services, that "breathe in and out with what's going on in the neighborhood" and are in the best position to be intensively involved with vulnerable families.

Similarly, to be effective, schools must be free to adopt coherent reforms, must be held accountable for student achievement rather than for compliance with the central office's ideas of how to teach and must allow parents and teachers to choose the schools within the public system that match their convictions about the methods of education most likely to lead to successful learning.

Third, many successful initiatives have targeted an array of interventions on a single community to strengthen families and neighborhoods. Recognizing that narrowly defined interventions don't work for those in high-risk circumstances, they are combining action in the economic, service, education and community-building domains to expand opportunity while strengthening individual capacity to respond to that opportunity.

Empowerment zones and foundation-funded neighborhood transformation initiatives rely on a community's strengths for designing and implementing change, while drawing on outside resources that bring influence.

The evidence is there. From Los Angeles to Savannah, Ga., from the South Bronx to St. Louis, communities are taming bureaucracies, crafting new partnerships and putting together a critical mass of what works to transform entire neighborhoods.

We must act on what we know to mobilize our resources, intellectual and spiritual, to ensure that all our children can grow up with a realistic expectation that they can participate in the American dream.

Lisbeth B. Schorr, director of Harvard's Project on Effective Interventions and author of "Common Purpose" (Doubleday), wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times, where it first appeared.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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