October 11, 2015

Why Government Poverty Programs Often Have Disappointing Results

Our country has spent hundreds of billions of dollars over many decades to reduce or eradicate poverty. Governments at all levels have been part of the effort. There are many explanations as to why these efforts have succeeded, if at all, only marginally. As a member of the National Urban League board, and its former chairman, and as a person who has worked closely with many community-based non-profit social service organizations in Southwestern Connecticut, I have some thoughts on the subject.

The National Urban League, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2010, is a wonderful social services and civil rights advocacy organization, which has developed its programs through the benefit of rigorous research, experience from nearly 100 years of service delivery at its nearly 100+ affiliates, and incredible insight from leadership teams headed by great leaders like Whitney Young, Vernon Jordan, John Jacaob, Hugh Price, and the League’s current brilliant and accomplished leader Marc Morial.

I have become familiar with the Urban League’s affiliate programs, and visited one of its great affiliates recently. The Urban League delivers services under many government-funded programs for such deep-seated problems as early childhood development, educational achievement gaps, health disparities, workforce skill gaps, foreclosures on homes, and the challenges of needy families. Its advantages, as is the case with all high-performing non-profits, include the ability to react flexibly and in a deeply-personalized way to the problems in confronts in helping individuals and families. It achieves phenomenal results in serving 1.3 million Americans a year in getting them ready to work, helping families avoid mortgage foreclosures and improve their financial literacy, providing vital child care and cash disbursement services to needy families, helping children with pre-school and after-school programs, and helping reduce health disparities.

However, when they, or other non-profits, provide human service programs through government grants, government creates a lot of inflexible, dysfunctional rules for program operation, and often mandates not only the software programs to be used, but the specific versions and process steps. Usually, the software is outdated, is heavily driven by compliance, rather than program effectiveness, and requires a great deal of inputting by clerks and administrators.

The other attribute of government programs is that there tend to be many of them and that they deal with pre-defined micro-segments of the communities they are serving. Because of the inflexibility and complexity of the rules for program eligibility, an inordinate amount of effort is spent identifying the right program to help someone, and figuring out how to cobble together a holistic assistance package from multiple programs. Governments do this because they do not trust anyone to spend government money without a lot of oversight, and because they are overly sensitive to small amounts of waste.

On this last point, I think that career and politically-appointed government officials have always had acutely sensitive political antennae, but this sensitivity was accentuated by the 24×7 media environment, the blogosphere, and the excessively partisan political environment in which we operate today. Governments are far more cautious in developing and implementing solutions that they were 40 years ago because the poisonous environment in which they operate.

Aside from the added cost and complexity of government, which we have less and less ability to afford, some individuals who need help cannot get it because they fall through the cracks between programs, or because the program rules have not anticipated their particular needs. Organizations like the Urban League are effective precisely because they are close to the people they serve, seasoned and capable service providers, and highly flexible and cost-effective in the way they deliver services.

When governments micro-manage them, many of the advantages of using non-profit service providers are lost. We need to hold service providers responsible for results when public money is used, not try to micro-manage how they do their jobs. We need a complete rethinking on government delivers services, one which takes a lot of the micromanagement out of government.