Grass-roots work needs more help

February 09, 1999|By Ronald Brownstein

WITH JUST two paid staff members and a budget filled mostly with voluntary donations, the Rev. Skip Long and his colleagues in Jobs Partnership have done an impressive job in Raleigh, N.C., over the past 27 months.

Reaching from the inner city to the suburbs, they have organized about 100 churches to provide one-on-one mentors to guide welfare recipients, recovering addicts and others in need through a 12-week training course that uses biblical lessons to teach workplace skills. Then, with a network of participating businesses, they have found jobs for 300 of the program's graduates -- with 95 percent still working for the first company that hired them.

With that record, it's no surprise that Mr. Long attracted a mob of ministers intent on replicating the program when he appeared last week at a Washington conference on the growing role of church-based charities in delivering social services. Of the people in Raleigh whom the partnership has reached, Mr. Long says simply: "All we've done is help them dream again."

Maybe the program could serve the same function for the nation's capital. At a time when Washington -- the ostensible pinnacle of national life -- has surrendered to the self-indulgence of perpetual conflict, this story of commitment and creativity at the base of society is at once a reproach, a window and a signpost.

In their determination to overcome racial and class divisions, Mr. Long and his associates offer a powerful reproach to a capital whose only apparent product over the year has been division itself.

Easing blight

At the same time, the partnership opens a window onto one of the most encouraging (and least remarked) trends of the late 1990s: the revival of grass-roots activism in many of America's most blighted neighborhoods. More than 2,000 nonprofit, neighborhood-run community development corporations are now building about one-third of all affordable housing in the United States and reclaiming some of America's meanest streets. Working alongside them, untold hundreds of religious charities like Mr. Long's are treating addicts, leading welfare recipients back into the world of work and fighting the cycle of gang violence.

Both the community development corporations and faith-based charities embody liberal as well as conservative ideals: They expand opportunity and foster inclusion while encouraging personal responsibility and local control. In that way, they are building a new delivery system for reaching the needy -- and offering a signpost to a capital lost in bitterness and stalemate.

Even leaving aside impeachment, the two national parties are trapped in a formulaic argument about whether Washington should do more to solve social problems, or transfer more authority to state and local governments. The experience of groups like the Jobs Partnership points the way out of that deadlock: a national agenda to encourage and nourish local innovation.

For all of their efficiency in providing services, both the community development corporations and faith-based charities need more resources to expand their activities to a critical mass. The federal government, although rolling in money, lacks an effective means to reach into the most troubled neighborhoods and lives.

"We can do some things in our community much more effectively than anybody else," says Mary Nelson, the president of Bethel New Life, a Chicago community development corporation. "But we can't do it without resources."

Local control

What would a national agenda to encourage local innovation look like? It might center on two broad ideas: increasing the flow of private capital into low-income neighborhoods and providing the people who live there more control over the public resources that already stream through them.

Encouraging more bank lending and equity investment in the inner city is important not only to create more jobs, but also to create more home and business owners who have an enduring stake in a community's success. On this front, President Clinton has already moved aggressively.

Through tougher enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act (the law that requires banks to provide loans in underserved communities), the creation of empowerment zones and seed grants for community development banks that invest in low-income areas, he's widened the flow of private capital into these communities.

In his new budget, Mr. Clinton would advance from that beachhead by expanding a low-income housing tax credit that has proved vital to the community development corporations, and by providing new loan guarantees and tax breaks for investments in inner-city businesses.

GOP resistance

Congressional Republicans have myopically resisted much of that agenda, particularly the increased pressure on banks. But the two sides could find more agreement on proposals to give local groups a larger role in delivering public services.

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