Managing Poverty: Lessons Learned in Making a Difference
By Roland V. Anglin
I came to the Foundation from academia in 1992 to serve as a program officer in what was then the Urban Poverty Program, the unit that supported the field of community and economic development, or CED, often shortened to community development. It was two months after the uprising in Los Angeles following the acquittal of police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King.
My first official day saw me in Los Angeles to observe a meeting of what was at the time called the Mature CDCs initiative. Composed of the first generation of community development corporations supported by the Foundation, this was the first attempt to revive a set of organizations buffeted by declining public support for community and economic development.
I was a deer in the headlights in the room with CDC leaders such as Pete Garcia, president of Chicanos Por La Causa in Arizona, and Ted Watkins of the Los Angeles–based Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC). All the other attendees were consequential leaders in their communities. I would like to think that in the ensuing years I gained their trust and respect because I listened to their needs and, with other program staff, worked to help them extend their impact.
But on that day and in that room, I was simply a novice program officer with much to learn.
That first day gave me a glimpse of the complexity to come. The Los Angeles uprising contained causal elements of earlier urban uprisings that helped birth the CED field. So naturally the question of just what we had accomplished as a nation came up.
Settling into the job thrilled me no end. There was a lot to learn. My colleagues and I were working in a CED landscape that now included national intermediaries and a growing group of CDCs whose focus was housing rehabilitation and development. Community and economic development was increasingly identified with, and by, housing development. This was quite different from how the field began, and this emerging focus caused a great deal of tension among practitioners.
The field of community and economic development has a long and storied relationship with the Foundation, beginning in the late 1950s with grants known as the Gray Areas program to address juvenile delinquency in cities. Principally, the Gray Areas program supported initiatives to build institutional structures in communities that served youth through workforce training and expanded recreational opportunities. Similar to the settlement house movement, these initiatives were neighborhood based, though the focus and underlying principle was that youths needed opportunity as distinct from an emphasis on individual deficits.
The development of this concept and its implementation are discussed in Inventing Community Renewal: The Trials and Errors that Shaped the Modern Community Development Corporation, a rich history and chronology of the CED field told by individuals present at its inception. Edited by the late Mitchell Sviridoff, a former Ford vice president, it includes articles by, among others, Franklin Thomas, a former Foundation president.
This important view, that opportunity and preparation were the keys to poverty reduction, linked well with the ferment of the 1960s and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the War on Poverty. It was truly a remarkable period in our nation’s history when discussion of eliminating poverty was seen as a real possibility. The Ford Foundation was at the table as federal policymakers fleshed out Johnson’s main anti-poverty effort, the Office of Economic Opportunity, and its maxim: “Maximum Feasible Participation” of the poor in efforts to address poverty.
There was a clear and bold view that opportunity existed in America, and the poor, often socially and geographically isolated, could access mainstream society through internal organization of political, cultural, social and economic life in low-wealth communities.
It was a simple and powerful theme: the poor are no different in their aspirations, and through a combination of breaking the isolation, political empowerment and assisted self -help, poverty could be eliminated.
This theme ran through not only the Great Society but also Sen. Robert Kennedy’s initiation of and support for a bold experiment in 1966 that resulted in the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC), one of the nation’s first Community Development Corporations (CDCs). BSRC and its vision commanded the attention of New York’s business and philanthropic communities and attracted significant federal dollars for its various programs.
This unique experiment hosted expansive programs in workforce development, the arts, housing rehabilitation, youth development, entrepreneurship and other areas designed to provide opportunity to people and develop place. This stunning example of what a community-based organization could accomplish, if given resources, led to federal legislation and support for national replication.
Again, the Foundation was a driving force in building out the field by seeding local CDC examples that could then compete for government support. Make no mistake, there was a great deal of churn in this nascent field and much was learned about building local community organizations to address poverty. Looking back, the lessons seem mundane: successful CDCs were the ones with good, politically savvy leaders who developed a palpable vision and a realistic plan for execution over time. A little luck did not hurt.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was clear that the public will to address poverty alleviation and the myriad challenges facing cities was waning. The CDC model as the centerpiece of community and economic development was still fragile. With federal dollars drying up, the emerging field faced an existential challenge: not enough capacity and shrinking support.
The Foundation supported innovation in the form of national and local intermediaries that would build the organizational and technical capacity of CDCs to do economic development. One of the most successful and prominent CED intermediaries, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), began as a project of the Foundation with Mitchell Sviridoff, then the vice president for National Affairs, leading the way. Ford also played a role in developing the Enterprise Foundation, now Enterprise Partners, and many others.
Spurred on by a national crisis of housing affordability and supply, these intermediaries focused CDC attention on housing rehabilitation and production. The advent of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) in 1986 strongly encouraged this focus and helped CDCs gain capacity in a narrow but critical part of economic development. As successful as the CDCs and intermediaries became at the beginning of the 1990s, the end goal of poverty alleviation was not lost but became fuzzy at best.
The gift of working at the Ford Foundation is that you are expected to use the resources available to you as program staff to advance the field. My initial challenge was to find a niche in a quite visible and stable portfolio. I did not have the luxury of a tabula rasa, but I asked the same question as if I did have a blank slate: What are the needs of the field?
In the mid-nineties, three field needs emerged: raise the profile of community and economic development in the public imagination; create a range of leadership development opportunities for existing and new people for the field; and balance the rise of the CED national intermediaries through encouraging local and regional capacity-building partnerships composed of local philanthropy, major corporations and the public sector.
Of the three, I look back at the support of the Community Development Partnership program as a significant contribution.
We began with about 10 and reached a high of about 25 such partnerships across the country. The partnerships stabilized and enhanced the local field through local knowledge, relationship building and customized capacity-building support.
In many cases, the national intermediaries came in after the partnerships emerged and added a layer of support that moved forward local efforts in an organic way that lessened tensions over who steered the ship. Many of these partnerships continue to build the capacity of CDCs or have morphed into agencies that address broader local and regional development.
Despite grant making in the three “needs” identified and some tangible success in the field at large, legitimate questions were being asked about the impact of CDCs and CED on the reduction of poverty. Yes, CED and CDCs could lay claim to being the largest producers of affordable housing, but did that move the needle on poverty? The answer is no.
The original intention of CED, which was to promote economic and political opportunity and mobility, came at a time when policy makers and the public conceived of poverty in spatial terms. There was an implicit notion that if you could fix the problems of a neighborhood, however defined, poverty reduction would follow. By the 1990s, urban economies, much less neighborhood economies, were threatened by globalization of jobs and capital. CDCs, or any neighborhood strategy, could not staunch the impact of massive economic change.
As the renowned sociologist William Julius Williams reported in his important book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, work has all but disappeared for low-skilled residents of urban neighborhoods, resulting in intergenerational, and often racialized, poverty.
As much as I admired the history of CED, the reality is that poverty had become a moving target by this time. Moreover, it was, and still is, unfair to ask nonprofit organizations laboring under trying fiscal constraints to stem the tide of increasing income inequality, and the close nexus of race, class and poverty.
Reflecting on the Foundation’s role in building the CED field, whatever its limits, still fills me with continued awe and pride. I left the institution with many experiences that still serve me well. Even now, as dean of the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, I find that my outlook on organizational practice is inspired by my time at the Foundation.
More important, my Ford experience forced an intellectual and professional search for what can make a difference in poverty. The Community Development Partnerships gave me an appreciation of what a dedicated, directed ecology can accomplish. So, when the collective impact models around improving educational outcomes and postsecondary attainment emerged in recent years, I became an admirer, though a critical one (nothing is ever perfect).
For me, the entry point in poverty reduction, given widespread upskilling, is improving primary and secondary education that leads to a post-secondary credential. Improving post-secondary attainment in this country requires a local attainment ecology that is driven by goals, data and accountability. CED can play an important role as part of a larger opportunity ecology.
A good example can be found here in Cleveland. It has been said that Cleveland’s Slavic Village community was ground zero for the subprime loan crisis. First settled by people of Czech and Polish descent, the community saw an influx of African Americans in the 1980s and 1990s. By 2009, the community, while struggling with increasing poverty and crime, was stable. In fact, it never turned into an all-black community. Slavic Village had adjusted to population shifts and was poised to make an economic comeback. That did not happen. Loose mortgage underwriting standards and improper housing valuations came together to devastate Slavic Village.
The Slavic Village Development (SVD) organization has been a seminal force with a history of leadership effectively advocating for and advancing the community. When leadership for this important organization was needed in the aftermath of the crisis, it turned to an innovative leader, one of our Levin graduates, Christopher Alvarado.
Alvarado and his staff of 14 professional and administrative staff focus on revitalizing the Broadway Street main corridor through the provision of new-home construction opportunities, the rehabilitation of nearly 200 previously vacant and abandoned homes, and the administration of several housing programs to help residents stay in their homes to raise their families and age gracefully and independently.
In addition, he and his staff provide technical and financial assistance to commercial businesses through storefront renovation programs, oversee recruitment programs for new businesses and residents, and administer planning services, infrastructure improvements and grant programs for the Slavic Village neighborhood.
It is not an exaggeration to say that SVD under Chris’s leadership has reinvigorated the neighborhood’s housing and retail markets. This is what you expect from a good CDC and its leadership.
Realizing that housing alone would not bring back the community, SVD partnered with the Third Federal Foundation (the philanthropic arm of a local bank committed to staying in the community) and more than 70 youth- and family-oriented organizations and schools to form the Slavic Village P-16 Partnership, a collective impact effort that is improving educational outcomes for students through enhanced learning environments, quality after-school programs and housing stability initiatives that restore wealth and create a higher quality of life for families throughout the neighborhood.
This encompassing effort focuses on providing and coordinating enrichment programs, family support systems and connections to public service organizations, all dedicated to student success along the educational pipeline, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school. High school students in Slavic Village’s P-16 Partnership are then provided internships and academic credit for working for partner employers.
Has it worked? The partners are making very steady progress. Slavic Village is a much more stable community now than it was a decade ago, but its stability rests not with rehabilitated housing but with the opportunities that are now available to parents and children through the Partnership.
My cautious embrace of collective impact examples such as the Slavic Village P-16 Partnership does not ignore structural problems of racial and class bias, nor does it jettison place development. It does recognize, as Senator Kennedy once said, that in viewing poverty “you have to grasp the web whole”. Grasping one side of the web collapses the other ends, leaving nothing but meaningless strands.
I keep this imagery in mind every day as dean as we go about our mission of community development, engagement and training leaders for the public and nonprofit sectors. Much needs to be done in Cleveland and the nation to reduce poverty and encourage opportunity for all citizens.
We may never see a time again where this country’s public policy aims to eliminate poverty, but we have learned important lessons about how to manage poverty. These lessons are needed now more than ever.