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Op-Ed: What Do the Poor Need? Try Asking Them

Op-Ed: What Do the Poor Need? Try Asking Them

This commentary was first published August 8, 2015 by The New York Times.

For decades, policy makers have treated poverty as a sign of helplessness and ineptitude. The worse off the neighborhood — the higher the rate of poverty, crime, and juvenile delinquency — the less influence it would have over its future. Social service agencies conducted “needs assessments” rather than asking residents what would strengthen their community. Government agencies or private entrepreneurs then delivered brick-and-mortar solutions — a new school, medical clinic or housing.

It seldom worked. Take Baltimore, which has been “renewed” again and again. Two decades ago, more than $130 million was poured into the neighborhood where the arrest of Freddie Gray sparked riots last spring. The vision was grand — more than a thousand homes were built or renovated; education and health services were introduced — but the jobs disappeared and the drug trade continued to flourish.

To improve poor neighborhoods, the people who live there must have a hand in deciding their own fate. That approach works well in Houston, where one program has enabled hundreds of thousands of poor residents, many of them immigrants, to move up the ladder of economic and educational opportunity each year. It’s a strategy that can — and should — be implemented nationwide.

Neighborhood Centers, a Houston nonprofit that grew out of the settlement house movement, has been around since 1907. Although it has grown exponentially, in large part because of the leadership of Angela Blanchard, the organization’s president and chief executive officer for the past two decades, its philosophy remains unchanged. “The people are the asset, the source of potential solutions, not the problem,” Ms. Blanchard says. Instead of telling poor neighborhoods what’s wrong with them, the organization takes a bottom-up approach. “We go where we’re invited and do what we’re asked to do.”

Skeptics were plentiful when Ms. Blanchard laid out her agenda more than a quarter-century ago. “The naysayers in Houston and Washington, D.C., the government agencies and big banks, told us we had a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding,” Ms. Blanchard told me. “ ‘You can’t do this with private dollars’ or ‘you can’t do it with public dollars’ or ‘you shouldn’t aim so high.’ ” But the strategy — spending hundreds of hours conducting one-on-one interviews and community meetings, inviting residents to specify their priorities, identifying the community’s natural leaders and then going after the needed funds — paid off handsomely.

It takes ingenuity to do this work at a time when government resources are thin. The nonprofit cobbles together funds from 37 federal, state and local programs, with grants or contracts from the Departments of Education, Agriculture, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development and the Treasury. “We milk every cow,” says Ms. Blanchard. “We’re not a three- or four-legged stool, we’re a millipede.”

Today, Neighborhood Centers runs more than 70 sites, scattered across the city and in pockets of poverty in the surrounding suburbs. Earlier this year, I spent a few days visiting several of those sites. With an annual budget of $270 million, the network serves more than half a million people. Nationwide, I don’t know of a community service nonprofit that’s nearly as big. Many of the beneficiaries are immigrants. Houston, one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities, is also among the most ethnically and racially diverse.

In 2014, Neighborhood Centers’ career offices secured jobs for 110,000 people. Collaborating with local community colleges, the nonprofit trained 5,600 for careers in welding and pipe-fitting, skills needed to work at the Port of Houston, in classes that run past midnight to meet the demand. Classes teach Latina stay-at-home moms how to turn their talents as cake makers into small businesses by advertising on Facebook and securing bulk purchases from grocery stores. Other women learn how to run a thrift store, giving them an entree into retailing.

Tax preparation turns out to be a pressing need in these communities because local tax preparers used to gouge residents, taking a 50 percent cut of refunds for filing a simple return. Now volunteers at several sites handle the paperwork for 177,000 residents, which saved them $234 million in the past five years. The organization also operates 14 high-caliber prekindergartens and charter schools. In every grade, charter students’ test scores were higher than in the neighborhood public schools.

Neighborhood Centers has another mission — preparing local leaders to make the political system work for them. Some of the nonprofit’s English classes incorporate lessons in civics to give immigrants, who typically avoid politics, an understanding of what they can do to improve their own communities.

To get a feel for the residents’ concerns, I sat in on one session. “Voting isn’t the only thing you can do to be involved,” Graci Garces tells a class of about a dozen adults at the Neighborhood Center in Pasadena, a low-income, predominantly Latino Houston suburb. “Do you know who to go to with a problem about a pothole in your street — about your school?”

“What do you wish could be improved?” she asks. Public transportation, neighborhood services and security are among the first responses. “During a campaign,” she explains, “you don’t have to be a citizen to raise these concerns. You can go to candidates’ forums, be a voice in the community.”

The 94 students in last year’s Pasadena “community engineers” class learned how to make an effective political case for themselves. Decent transportation was the community’s priority, since many of them had to walk a long way to the nearest grocery store or health clinic, and residents persuaded the City Council to operate a new bus line. Two graduates of the class have gone further — they’re running for Council seats.

At the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center — a 75,000-square-foot campus in Gulfton, the port of entry for many immigrants, which used to have one of the highest juvenile crime ZIP codes in the state — I met with a group of 10th-grade boys. These teenagers spent several years designing a skateboard park for their neighborhood. With coaching from the staff, they won over a skeptical city parks and recreation director, gained the support of a City Council member and persuaded the Houston City Council, not known for profligacy, to spend $400,000 on the project. “It was cool,” said one of the boys, “that someone important cared.”

“Neighborhood Centers illustrates what it means to embrace democratic change and build a new work force — a new America — at metropolitan scale,” says Bruce Katz, a vice president at the Brookings Institution and founding director of its Metropolitan Policy Program.

Nonprofits elsewhere have devised similarly bold initiatives. Purpose Built Communities, a 12-city network introduced in 2009, combines mixed-income housing with a cradle-to-college education pipeline, job opportunities and an array of services. “We’re focusing on the human side of the equation,” says its president, Carol Naughton. “Our ambition is to help neighborhoods and people reach their full potential.” The success of the flagship Atlanta initiative, begun in 1995, which has reduced crime and improved school achievement in what used to be one of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods, shows the potential of this approach.

Community development isn’t a quick fix. It’s hard work and it takes time. But what’s happening in Houston, Atlanta and elsewhere shows that it’s worth doing.

Photo: A reading lesson last week in a summer program at the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center in Houston.
Source: Michael Stravato/The New York Times/Redux