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What Happens to Truth

Helping People to Help Each Other

October 1, 1988 -

Despite good intentions, large amounts of money and an army of social workers, poverty has not been eradicated. Don't worry, this is not going to be a diatribe against the welfare state and our duty to provide support for those in need. Nonetheless, it's obvious that there must be better ways of tackling the needs of the poor than simply expanding government programs and expenditures.

Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and chairman of the Council for a Black Economic Agenda, recently wrote about the intractability of poverty despite the immense amounts of money devoted to its eradication in the United States. He does not argue for the elimination of anti-poverty programs, but for their redirection. He argues that both the Left and the Right are caught up in stereotypical views that amount to a misunderstanding of human nature. He writes:

Just as children are not held responsible for their behavior, poor people are not given the benefit of the doubt. The "poverty experts" on the Left tend to believe that even if poor people had the requisite information and role models aplenty, they are just too stupid to make informed, intelligent decisions. We must provide trained professionals to do it for them. This is supposed to be a compassionate view, but it bears no truth in reality and it is the worst possible illusion the Left can perpetuate. The Right, on the other hand, mistakenly assumes that all we have to do is open the doors of economic opportunity and let the winners and losers fight among themselves. This "let the strong survive" attitude is just as bad. Conservatives fail to understand that in order to participate in the American economy, a person must have adequate sources of information, and, furthermore, must know how to put such information to good use. 

Woodson believes that poor people are the losers in this debate about spending more or less. Instead, he suggests a different way of approaching the problem of poverty. He says that a serious shortcoming of the present poverty programs is that they tend to reward failure. There are programs for all kinds of people with problems: those who are truant from school, poor and alcoholic, and those who are poor and pregnant. "But if you are merely in the low income category, if you obey your parents, if you are struggling to achieve in school, if you refrain from sexual activity, there is no program for you. You just don't qualify."

What Woodson calls "the poverty industry" robs people of their most precious commodity, namely, dignity, because they are not permitted to participate personally in devising solutions to their difficulties. Researchers and experts, social workers and other government services take over on behalf of the poor. Woodson argues that there is a third way, one used by the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. The Center is directly involved with people in low income neighbourhoods. Their approach is to help the poor help themselves by using their own skills and abilities to the maximum, and by discovering the resources right within their own communities.

A Courageous Example

Woodson cites a case study in success involving a public housing project plagued by drug abuse, crime, teen pregnancy and welfare dependency. Kimi Gray is an enterprising women, who by herself raised five children in public housing and sent them all to college, and who decided to do something about the violence, poverty and despair rampant in the 464-unit Kenilworth Parkside Project in Washington, D.C.

She began a self-help study program, "College Here We Come," which allowed them to meet every week. One student who was proficient in math, for example, would tutor another and in exchange would gain help in his or her weaker areas. If members didn't show up for a scheduled study hour, the others would go find them; and at the end of each grading period, their report cards would be posted on the bulletin board.

In seven years, more than 580 students from this single public housing project went on to college. This figure represents more than one student per household and it is improving all the time. At Kenilworth, now managed by residents, teen pregnancies have been cut in half. Welfare dependency is down from 85 to 35 percent. The community is now rated as one of the safest locations in the city. Was it government paternalism which achieved this extraordinary success? Certainly not." (Robert Woodson, "Poverty: Why Politics Can' t Cure It", Imprimis, July 1988)

Mr. Woodson's sane advice about an American problem could also be put to good use in Canada. Here too we are inundated with conferences, studies and reports that purport to tell how the problem of poverty and related problems can be resolved. But it is obvious that the experience of Mr. Woodson and the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise holds some worthwhile lessons for Canada too.