It is of no small significance that poverty is suddenly returning to the forefront of the American consciousness. Perhaps it is mostly a comment on the immense power of our media-age Presidents to articulate national trends, but with just a few simple inaugural utterances, George Bush has restored this grave social problem to polite, thoughtful conversation after eight years of almost total eclipse—except for the glaring visibility of the homeless.
Ronald Reagan, who had a hard upbringing, figured if he could make it without a handout, so could you; George Bush, however, is steeped in the patrician tradition of noblesse oblige. “My friends,” he told us at his inaugural, “we have work to do. There are the homeless, lost and roaming; there are the children who have nothing, no love, no normalcy. There are those who cannot free themselves of enslavement to whatever addiction—drugs, welfare, the demoralization that rules the slums.” So, it is with a sensation not unlike the first waking shock of a New Year’s Day that we open our eyes to find that, after an orgy of self-indulgence, the old headache is back upon us.
This is a story about American poverty, which in spite of the longest peacetime economic expansion in history stands as the nation’s most conspicuous failing. If your inclination is to turn the pages to the next article, go ahead. But before you leave, take this one thought with you: The nature of entrenched American poverty is changing for the worse—getting meaner, harder—and in the coming decade this country won’t be able to handle it the same way that it did in the 1980s (by ignoring it) or in the 1960s (by throwing money at it) or in the 1970s (by continuing to throw money at it while beginning to ignore it). Reality is forcing America to forge a new social compact in regard to poverty, a process that will include redefining society’s obligations to the individual and vice versa. The outcome will have a profound effect on the health and vitality of our society as we enter the 21st century.
But this is not just the old sad story about poverty, the one you’ve read countless times before. George Bush’s “thousand points of light” may be some clever speechwriter’s line, yet it is a concept rooted in reality. A surprising number of dedicated individuals and intelligent programs have survived the recent neglectful era’s Darwinian shakeout—or have sprung from it. Given enough fuel, they represent our best chance yet to illuminate the darkness shrouding poverty.
Some such models include: A former policeman in Miami’s Liberty City who has led an inspiring, hard-nosed community development on the site of a riot-destroyed grocery. A settlement house in Atlanta, which is slowly building a program to shepherd ghetto children from preschool to adulthood. A Kansas City program that finds useful places for the homeless in private homes. Another Kansas City effort that draws teenagers away from drug gangs and into arts and athletics. A South Bronx training school that is building careers in the produce business for the formerly hopeless.
These success stories share common elements, many of them quite similar to those of good management. In sorting them out, four basic principles suggest a template for rebuilding an effective antipoverty effort:
• Work from the bottom up. There is no splashy grand solution, but programs that bubble up from the community fare better than those mandated from the top down. They are most effective when they can be flexible in meeting local needs.
• Spend money carefully, but spend it. Though federal dollars aren’t a solution in themselves, they are absolutely essential to any reasonable blueprint for progress. Existing resources can be more effectively marshaled than they are, but we shouldn’t expect a cure on the cheap.
• Start early. It costs less, and is more effective, to get children on the right track than to change adults. And early interventions are vital to perhaps the most important element in breaking the poverty cycle: instilling values.
• Programs that incorporate the discipline of the marketplace, such as housing and commercial development built partly with private financing, work better than old-fashioned, wholly subsidized projects.
The successful models that have emerged from these underlying principles address the most glaring of America’s poverty problems, though not necessarily the most widespread. As the tables below show, a majority of the poor are white and live outside the central cities; a great many are only temporarily in poverty. But the urban poor who haunt the TV newscasts are more likely to be black or Hispanic and to stay poor for life, or for generations. Their problems are the most stubborn—and the most threatening. Nearly one of four New York City residents lives below the federal poverty line, an annual income of $11,611 for a family of four. Okay, that doesn’t include the value of food stamps, housing subsidies, and health care, but it adds up to a lot of trouble. A growing number of the poor are members of what we define as the “underclass”—people attached to virtually no institutions in our society. In 1985, 19% of black men aged 20 to 29 reported no earnings at all, compared with 9% in 1973, according to Northeastern University economist Andrew Sum. Today, 52% of all poor families are headed by a single woman, up from roughly 25% in 1960.
Political and academic ideologues still argue about poverty’s scope, causes, and cures, but the centrists among them increasingly agree on certain truths: The current federal welfare system, which expends about $17 billion annually to alleviate symptoms, creates destructive dependency, and reform should continue in the direction of workfare and mandatory child support. The bounty of economic growth doesn’t always “trickle down” to the poor. It is no longer assured—maybe it never was—that if you just work, you can make it in America. These truths also underlie the examples of what works and the agenda for change that follow.
Why should affluent people—particularly busy corporate executives—care about poverty? Because, says Stuart Butler, director of domestic policy studies for the conservative Heritage Foundation, “it’s a blight on capitalism. It casts doubt on the ability of the system to deliver to everyone.” Because, says Peter Goldmark, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, “the values that make our country work and the hope that there will be real opportunity and stability for our kids depend on this country being a fair and just society.” And because, economists warn, our work force is expanding too slowly to sustain the economic growth we’d like—while we have millions of poor people languishing on the sidelines.
More important, recent signs indicate that Americans like to see themselves as compassionate, that they are turning away from an obsession with materialism and voicing increased concern for the disadvantaged. A January New York Times/CBS poll revealed that half of those surveyed said they would pay $100 a year more in federal taxes to help solve the homeless problem. Other polls show a decided willingness to pay more taxes for improving schools, health care, and child care.
There is some national embarrassment—if not shame—involved here, beginning with the state of American childhood. Consider a few more statistics, remembering that this is no Depression, these are “good times”: Almost 40,000 of the 3.8 million American children born in 1986 died before their first birthday. Today, we rank 20th in the world, behind Spain and Singapore, in infant mortality; our black infant mortality rate would place us at 28th, behind Cuba and Bulgaria. About 11 million American children had no health insurance in 1987. About 40% of American children under age 4 didn’t receive basic immunizations in 1985. Roughly half the black children in America live in poverty.
One theme running strongly through most current thinking on poverty is the need to inculcate poor people with “values”—respect for work, family, and community institutions. But little attention has been paid to the way the values of society as a whole shape and skew the values of those in poverty. In many ways, it’s a designer society in the projects too. “A lot of people measure success by material things,” says Margie Smith, a 1972 Job Corps graduate and mother living in Atlanta’s 52-year-old Techwood Homes, America’s first federal public housing project, built in the inaugural optimism of the New Deal. “I’ll tell you why they’re out on that corner selling crack cocaine. All they do with the money is buy clothes and cars. If you ain’t walking around with somebody’s name on your butt, and on your head and on your feet, you’re nobody in here.”
Thus, anti-designer values have even been incorporated into some solutions. To combat such pathology, for example, Charles R. Drew Elementary School in Miami’s Liberty City requires student uniforms. But many believe a national reassessment of values is more to the point. Says David Stanley, 53, the heavily involved social activist CEO of Payless Cashways Co., a big building-materials retailer: “Let’s not figure out how everybody can retire to Boca Raton. Let’s see how we can educate our children to make them productive.”
Contrary to conventional wisdom, persuading the poor to take jobs is no longer enough; in fact, the plight of the working poor may be the most misunderstood aspect of American poverty. In 1986 two million adults worked full time but were still poor, a 40% increase since 1978. And there are over five million poor people in families where someone is working full time, according to Harvard poverty expert David Ellwood. Taking a job often means losing Medicaid benefits and food stamps. Says one welfare department worker in affluent, mostly white Gwinnett County, Georgia, near Atlanta: “I have a client with two kids who works at McDonald’s and makes $800 a month. She worked a little overtime at Christmas and immediately had her food stamps cut off. This confuses people’s values.” Rick Malsick, a social worker in a poor section of Kansas City, sees the same pattern. “We had a steel plant go from 4,500 workers to 1,000, and a truck plant closed completely. People leave the smokestack base and go get the job at the hardware store or the fast-food place—whatever it takes. But when we see them, there’s a lot of despair because of their economic situation. They have no health insurance, and they aren’t Medicaid eligible.”
Aside from enlightened self-interest and the whole “kinder, gentler” movement, other considerations pertain to poverty. Ponder these “good times” news capsules, and let fear motivate you: In January, 52 people were murdered in Washington, D.C., our seat of government, the highest monthly total ever. Postmen in Atlanta recently refused to enter the Bankhead Courts public housing project for fear of their lives, and politicians bent on proving its safety were scared off by gunfire (on our visit, we encountered policemen with drawn guns chasing groups of young men, and had rocks thrown at us). In Miami, residents of the Overtown ghetto set their mean streets afire in what is becoming something of a ritual. In Los Angeles, gang violence already has claimed 49 lives this year. So, what should we expect when “bad times” arrive?
BUILDING A CORNERSTONE
If you haven’t had a couple of bloody, terrifying urban riots down the street from your corporate headquarters, the experiences of Knight-Ridder’s CEO, James K. Batten, 53, can help you capture the feeling, and lead you to one of our first “heroes.” After Miami’s lacerating Liberty City riot of 1980, Batten helped mobilize the business community. Says he: “Suddenly there was a surge of conscience among businessmen—some of it sparked by idealism and concern for humankind, and some of it by pragmatism and self-interest. Nineteen-eighty left a sense of foreboding about what Miami really was and where it was headed. Even the most cynical recognized that no one wants to vacation in a war zone.”
In the aftermath, officials from a newly formed Ford Foundation-backed outfit called LISC, for Local Initiatives Support Corp., came to Liberty City in search of struggling community development organizations to help. They found none, but they did discover Otis Pitts, an educated native of Liberty City with a varied background as a military policeman, railroad cook, and Miami city cop. After his police partner was killed by his side on a call in Liberty City, he took up youth counseling work and was running a successful agency in Liberty City when LISC found him.
LISC and Pitts set up something called the Tacolcy Economic Development Corp., to which LISC provided money for plans and such, plus a small loan and expertise to get additional financing for rebuilding a looted supermarket on a pivotal corner. LISC acted as a facilitator, but the project was essentially on Pitts’s shoulders, and it had to make commercial sense. It took off when he persuaded Winn-Dixie Stores to come in as anchor tenant, after the original tenant refused to return. “I learned quickly that a deal is finite,” he recalls now. “You can’t put too many risks on one deal. As soon as something like this gets started, all the aspirations and demands of the community come together. We were under pressure to hire minority employees, to build with minority contractors, even to help start a minority grocery chain. Well, if you just keep piling up the risks like that with unrealistic expectations, the deal will collapse.”
So, says Pitts, he became single-minded. “The major objective,” he says, “was to build a damn shopping center to provide quality goods and services at competitive prices in a safe and decent environment”—basically the economic cornerstone of any community. At that, he did bring in mostly black subcontractors and workers. Today, Pitts’s crisply appointed offices are located in Edison Plaza, which is just what he describes. Its success has attracted a McDonald’s to an opposite corner, and Pitts has gone on to other victories.
His most recent accomplishment is the 121-unit, eight-story Edison Towers apartment house for low-income tenants, a beautifully appointed, exquisitely maintained private residence with excellent security smack in the middle of Liberty City. Financed with LISC help and mostly private funds, Edison Towers is a model of how community development corporations get the job done. The financing included a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, plus loans from the foundation, LISC, Dade County, Southeast Bank, and Equitable, as well as a $1.6 million grant from a developer called Swire Properties. Swire contributed in return for a zoning change that allowed it to build expensive condos elsewhere in Miami.
The Edison Towers’ tropical pink and aqua elegance is something of a shock to its surroundings, and Pitts loves it. “We believed there are people in our community who want a decent place to live and will take care of it,” he says. “We proved it, but not by accident. Before you get in here, we visit your apartment—not to see if you have nice furniture or anything like that—but to see if you have pride, if you take care of what you have.”
Tacolcy Economic Development Corp. is building a garden apartment project next door and is refurbishing facades up and down the streets of Liberty City. How did his shopping center and apartment escape damage in the riots this year? “I was out front,” says Pitts. “I haven’t forgotten how to police.” What’s more, Pitts’s influence is spreading, and he has dented one Miami race myth by joining forces with Cuban-born Manny Rivero of the LISC-sponsored East Little Havana Community Development Corp. LISC and Pitts supported Rivero in his successful efforts to build the sparkling new RioPlaza condominium projects for low-income Latinos, mostly Cuban and Central American immigrants.
The point of Edison Towers and all this development: to keep upwardly mobile people from leaving the community and to draw others like them back. It’s a long haul, but Otis Pitts—who waves and smiles at the police and the street-corner crack dealers alike as he cruises around Liberty City—can point to tangible progress. “We’re building economic strength and real investment momentum, the kind of thing that eventually stops redlining,” he says. “Yes, we have real pockets of hard-core problems. I’ll show them to you. But what’s happened here proves that we also have a core of middle-class or aspiring middle-class people who want the same things anybody else wants in a community.”
LISC—basically a creation of the Ford Foundation—is far in front of the curve on business involvement with poverty. With tax credits as a partial inducement, it has assembled more than $200 million from some 500 corporations and foundations and leveraged over $1 billion of direct investment in more than 500 community development corporations across the country. In the South Bronx alone, LISC has invested upwards of $5 million in some 36 development projects.
“We make it an attractive proposition for a corporation or foundation to work through us,” says LISC President Paul S. Grogan. “They may want to attack these problems, but they don’t have the capacity themselves to evaluate the opportunities, or to make judgments about these community organizations. They don’t know the landscape. There’s still sort of a stereotype of unscrupulous neighborhood organizations that don’t do anything but take the money.”
LISC officials admit that many community development corporations aren’t as successful as Pitts’s or Rivero’s, but all of them counter the “poverty pimp” images from the 1970s. “We’re able to provide the opportunity recognition and the screening, and that’s been crucial to us,” says Grogan. The lesson we can learn from LISC: “There’s an appetite and an interest on everybody’s part if you can make something happen in a businesslike way, and that says something about the directions for the future.”
REACHING CHILDREN EARLY
An entirely different point of light burns away in an Atlanta ghetto, fired by a white veteran of the civil rights movement, 60-year-old Reverend Austin Ford, attached to the Atlanta Diocese of the Episcopal Church. Ford left a suburban white church 22 years ago to found his Emmaus House—really an old-fashioned settlement house, with pruned English-style flower gardens and grounds that stand as an oasis in a desert of urban blight.
If one principle approaches consensus across all ideological boundaries, it is that “early intervention” is essential and effective in the crusade against poverty. This means simply reaching children at a very young age and steering them in a productive direction, the principle embodied in the federal Head Start program. Today, at least 26 neighborhood children aged 3 to 5 are assured one nutritious meal a day and lots of encouragement through Emmaus House’s meticulously run preschool program. The children are picked up at their homes and delivered to program director Melba Renfroe, a strict but jolly graduate of Atlanta’s elite Spelman College. She and two assistants spread their attention among the children, reading to them and rewarding them with stickers for being “good listeners,” helping them to paint and draw, and sparking their curiosity with games and play.
Many parents of the Emmaus House children are still in their teens and came to the program because of an earlier connection to the Sunday school or some other activity there. The parents must attend a mandatory orientation session at which they are encouraged to go to “positive parenting” meetings, and they must volunteer for one of four fund-raising activities. Ford sees the explosion of teenaged childbearing as one of the most damaging and direct results of Reagan policies, which, largely under pressure from the religious right, slashed spending for family planning by 23%. Today, 66% of urban black children are born out of wedlock, and in some cities, the figure is as high as 80%.
“The big difference in this program was the outreach—assigning people to go out onto the streets. Nobody stayed behind a desk.”
“These girls have these babies because they want something to play with,” Ford says. “They don’t want to send them to kindergarten or Head Start because they don’t want to part with them. We’re not really dealing here with parents who have identified problems and are doing something about them. We have to go out into the community and say, ‘Let us just take your baby to Emmaus House for a few hours a day.’ They know us, so they let us do it. Otherwise, the children would go off to first grade with absolutely no socialization.”
As a logical extension, Ford is raising funds to build a study hall dormitory. Some 100 school-age youngsters, many of them graduates of his preschool program, could come after school for enrichment, help with their studies, support in dealing with the school, and, if necessary, a place to sleep. “So many parents down here live on the edge of the law that they won’t go near the school,” he says. “These children need someone to hold the school accountable for educating them. The idea is not to take a child away from his home unnecessarily, but to stabilize his life. If the mother goes to prison, or the hospital, or the house burns down, his life continues. We want to prove that this sort of investment is cheaper than the remedial things we spend our money on now.”
Other programs show that fixing ghetto schools is not impossible, notably the work of Dr. James P. Comer, director of the School Development Program at Yale’s Child Study Center. Comer’s program, which began with two horribly performing New Haven inner-city schools that he turned around dramatically, changes the whole way the school serves children by bringing parents and mental health experts into the system. The parents spend time in the classroom and find out how to support good study habits; the experts counsel the teachers on how to overcome the learning problems that kids with rough lives at home are likely to suffer. His highly successful results have inspired similar interventions at more than 50 schools around the country.
But the nation has been slow to back early interventions that work. Washington’s current budget for the well-proven Head Start, $1.2 billion, provides for less than 20% of America’s eligible 3-to 5-year-olds.
HOMES FOR THE HOMELESS
Beyond the plight of children, clearly the single symptom of poverty that has most stirred the national conscience is that of the homeless. A large number are severely disturbed or are chronic abusers of drugs or alcohol. But many can become useful members of society if someone takes the effort to help them. Some citizens in Kansas City are doing that with the aid of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation and the Metropolitan Lutheran Ministry, a local social welfare agency. A program called Open Hearts-Open Homes has placed over 100 homeless families or individuals in volunteer private homes, many of them in need of something the homeless can provide in return, such as child or elderly care, cooking or housekeeping. “We turn nobody down,” says program coordinator Allan Chambers. “We can’t always help, but we always listen.” No one involved is charged any fees, but each match costs the funders about $400, so it is probably one of the most economical programs to house the homeless in the country.
In the affluent suburb of Shawnee, Kansas, Elizabeth Haas, 34, has taken Phillipa Gilman, 55, into her upper-middle-class tract home. Haas’s husband walked out in November, leaving her with two children, 8 and 12. Gilman had spent most of her last ten years, since quitting as a customer service representative at an insurance company, taking care of her infirm mother, now 90. But when her mother went into a nursing home, Gilman no longer had money for their apartment. With out-of-date skills and no permanent address, she couldn’t find a job, or even get food stamps. She slept in storerooms and closets and often ate the unfinished food off her mother’s tray. “For a year and a half I was trapped,” she says. “Homelessness is a trap. Society will not forgive. How many times can you go up to people and tell them you’re in dire straits?”
For Elizabeth Haas, who has secured a well-paying public relations job, the program is “a gift from God. I was stuck with no income or career. My two children need a tremendous amount of mothering and care. Now Phillipa is my nanny.” (Haas pays her a small salary.) “I feel so good about this program because not only is Phillipa helping me, but I’m helping Phillipa out and I’m helping society out.”
Of course, says Allan Chambers, “Forty percent of our homeless people have multiple problems—legal, drugs, or whatever.” They sign an agreement stating that they have no criminal records and don’t now use drugs. “If you fail to keep the agreement, you don’t get a second chance. If we hear of any inappropriate behavior, we’re there within two hours, and they’re through.”
If Chambers sounds a little tough, that’s clearly another theme that runs through successful efforts against poverty. The heroes may have soft hearts, but they have hard shells as well, and they have survived because they are tough and bear a single-minded sense of purpose. Otis Pitts fired friends from his staff to get the job done. Austin Ford brooks no foolishness, and can still a room with a look. You get one chance with Allan Chambers.
HEADING OFF THE GANGS
If you want more tough, try luring teenagers away from drug gangs with programs of dance and athletics and art and theater, the way workers in Kansas City’s Youthnet program do. It started after the police chief called attention to an influx of exotic gangs, such as the Crips and the Bloods from Los Angeles. Youthnet—with cooperation from 13 different local agencies and $240,000 in funding—hit the streets last summer, trying to combat the gang influence. Workers recruited participants on the playgrounds and street corners, and ended up working with 3,000 teenagers, aged 13 to 16, roughly half of the central city’s at-risk population. The job called for a certain kind of tact. “We didn’t want to raise eyebrows among the Uzi crowd, you know what I mean?” says Rick Malsick, who runs one of the agencies. “It was more like, ‘Hey, here’s what’s going on over at the center and why don’t you drop by? And by the way, do you need a ride?'”
David Smith, the black executive director of a local YMCA, who is passionate in his work with kids, talks about why Youthnet worked, why kids were going around Kansas City last summer identifying themselves as Youthnet kids instead of gang members. “We changed the natural karma of the streets,” he says. “We moved them around. We disturbed the natural order of things. The big difference in this program was the outreach—assigning people to go out onto the streets. Nobody stayed behind a desk. They were like Pied Pipers whose job was to find kids hanging out and steer them to the centers.”
The lessons of Youthnet are, again, simple: If kids don’t join the gangs, they are less likely to fall into the underclass. The community intervened with lightning speed (2½months from conception to execution) in a problem before it became hopeless. Mostly through local philanthropy, it funded an effort by dedicated people who crossed bureaucratic boundaries to get the job done. But like all of our “heroes,” Smith thinks of his own efforts more as a grain of sand than a point of light. “We’re not making a dent in poverty yet,” he says. “We’re making a difference in a few kids’ lives. I’m not optimistic that the country’s going to really reduce poverty. I think the forces are just too enormous.”
Just when bleakness sets in, though, along come the likes of Ira J. Cohen, 55, an owner of Shapiro & Cohen Inc., a Bronx produce wholesaler. Cohen found himself on the cutting edge of one of poverty’s most difficult challenges: job training. Almost by accident he started a whole school, the Produce Academy of New York, and is teaching poor blacks and Hispanics to earn a living in fruits and vegetables. The trainees study four hours a day for eight weeks, and get paying jobs before they finish. Each graduate is all but guaranteed a union job that pays at least $10 an hour after two years.
Cohen’s business is at the Hunts Point Terminal Market, which has a total employment of about 10,000 people. His idea stemmed from frustration at the decline of the industry’s father-son tradition; specifically, all four of his children have forsaken produce for other careers. He knew the industry was hurting for trained personnel, and he knew Hunts Point was surrounded by South Bronx residents in need of jobs.
A proselytizer of the produce business in speeches to schools and neighborhood groups, Cohen knew there were plenty of employable people to be found. He went to New York City’s Private Industry Council, a nonprofit group that distributes federal job training money, and quickly got it to finance a program. Result: the academy, which is free to its students. His first class of 21 graduated in January and are all still employed. His second class of 27 is under way.
“Our industry is depression-proof,” says Cohen. “Nobody can do without eating. In the Depression, Wall Street executives were in produce. They stood on the street corners and sold apples.” More important, he says, “It’s a colorblind, gender-blind, ethnic-blind business. Anybody who wants to work hard can make a successful lifestyle if they learn this business.” He teaches warehousing, how to identify hundreds of fruits and vegetables, temperature and humidity requirements, and how to trim and crisp and reconstitute a banged-up package. That’s not all. “I’m a believer in subliminal psychological training, and I make an effort in every session to talk about pride, commitment, the search and the need for excellence, self-esteem, recognition of self-worth.”
The program, Cohen says, is going to “prove that things can be done. The indigent, the people known as the underclass, are not really underclass. They just haven’t had the breaks I’ve had. They’re not worse than I am; they are just less lucky. A lot of people have been good to me along the way. And I was taught by my parents that when you take something, you are obliged to give something back. I hope the success of this will stimulate other people like myself to get up off their duffs and do something. We have a moral responsibility to help others.”
A NEW BATTLE PLAN
How do we duplicate these successes on a scale that makes a difference to our country? What are some of the principles of success? What should be the role of government, of business, of our community institutions, and of the individual? How do we engage thoughtful people to look for solutions? How do we avoid past frustrations?
Perhaps the most contentious issue of all is the role government should play. Most agree that its place is to remove impediments to progress, and to draw up policies of incentive. But if “points of light” is supposed to mean that citizens should take care of poverty without government funding, the people carrying the beacons would be highly skeptical.
“We’re very unhappy when we’re cited as evidence that the federal government doesn’t have to do anything,” says LISC President Grogan. “These problems cannot be solved without federal resources. What’s positive now is that the government has an opportunity to not go back to the big programs of the past, but to provide support to local efforts, to leverage the state and local resources that are available, to become a partner in these efforts.”
Business can play an important part, but it isn’t necessarily to write a big check. Two glaring needs in the struggle conveniently coincide with two business specialties: leadership and management. How much more would individuals contribute to charity, for example, if their employer guaranteed to them that a particular effort was efficiently delivering badly needed services, and kept them abreast of its progress?
Payless Cashways’ Stanley believes executives should get involved because “business leaders are listened to. They have an audience. And they can do much more about poverty by taking leadership positions on things like low-income housing than they can with their philanthropic dollars. I know five or six Senators, a couple of governors, a bunch of Congresspeople. They usually take my calls. Unfortunately, corporate leaders are not wonderfully informed on gut issues like poverty.”
Business can also contribute its skills in spotting good managers. “Business people ought to look for and help develop savvy, streetwise people who have the potential to make a difference if given some help,” says Knight-Ridder’s Batten. “When you’re dealing with people like Otis Pitts and the people from LISC, people you can trust, you can invest modest amounts of time, money, and energy, and you can make a difference.”
With or without corporate involvement, the war already has been declared. And this time, it isn’t society waging war on poverty, it’s poverty waging war on society. The battlefields are clearly defined: drugs, education, health care, welfare, job training, day care, youth development, crime.
Some needs are more clearly defined than others. We can easily identify a set of broad objectives, an agenda that our finest minds and talents need to assault in as depoliticized and bipartisan an atmosphere as possible:
• Insist that America deliver well-managed Head Start-type programs to as many disadvantaged children as possible. We can make no sounder, or cheaper, investment. At each later step, the costs increase.
• Construct a health care system that can include most Americans without bankrupting the Treasury.
• Continue to increase our commitment to education, and recognize—as does the Comer program at Yale—that such a commitment includes family and community.
• Make low-paid jobs a rung on a ladder, not a lid on hope.
• Remove any remaining disincentives to working—cutting off food stamps and Medicaid just when people start to make money—and expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, which supplements low wages.
• Expand the the federal housing voucher program, which pays the difference between 30% of the poor’s income and prevailing market rents. It is cost-effective, and offers people mobility and choice—which they do not get when they are isolated in projects.
• Find and fund programs, like Kansas City’s Youthnet, that offer ghetto youths reasonable alternatives to street life.
• Destigmatize the war on poverty so that we can once again attract and motivate people to work in, and care about, society’s orphaned institutions—inner-city schools, prisons, the welfare system, mental health clinics. Recognize that, for all their problems, there are still “heroes” struggling against all odds in these systems, people whose talents and dedication could be easily tapped.
Even if you disagree with every principle and recommendation laid out here, put the poverty issue on your personal agenda and demand that it take its place high on the national agenda. Recognize that by doing nothing to address the blight, we are at high risk of condemning ourselves to a permanently bifurcated society, one whose tensions and difficulties could eventually narrow the scope of our national aspirations and perhaps even limit some of the freedoms—economic, social and political—that we have long enjoyed.
This article originally appeared in the April 10, 1989 issue of Fortune.