Grassroots Mentors

Government's Response to Poverty Has Failed

Mr. Woodson is president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a voluntary organization that promotes inner-city self-help projects.

Albert Einstein once gave us this simple maxim: A problem can never be solved by thinking on the same level that produced it.” The crisis that now exists throughout the nation—most acutely in inner-city districts and other low-income areas—demands a new level of thought, beyond the policy talk that has, in part, created the problem.

We are facing no less than the demise of the civil society of our nation. From a staggering rise in violent crime to a steadily rising rate of teen pregnancies and rampant drug abuse, we are witnessing the effects of the erosion of our country’s sustaining moral foundation. News stories inform us that these trends toward civil disintegration exist within all economic strata. However, they have taken the greatest toll in our poorest communities, which lack the buffers of economic security and other elements of stability that exist in middle- and upper-income areas.

Government’s “response” in low-income areas has been to create a gargantuan bureaucracy of programs and agencies whose goal is to treat the effects of poverty rather than to boost the poor to self-sufficiency. Yet, if we have learned anything from a thirty-year, three-trillion dollar experiment in such damage control, it is that no combination of programs and policies has the power to eradicate these problems. Policy analysts on all sides are aware of this. As a friend of mine once remarked, “There are two types of people: Those who think the programs aren’t working and want to reform or terminate them, and those who think the programs aren’t working and want to expand them.”

The motivation of those who wish to expand government efforts is not difficult to discern, given that various programs make up what is now a multi-billion-dollar poverty industry which absorbs a full seventy percent of all funds designated to help the poor. Yet those who would terminate a system that has been unproductive or counterproductive must also rethink their options. To say that we should cease our conventional response to poverty should not mean that we should do nothing at all.

Changing Personal Values

We must face the fact that the greatest problems that besiege our nation are, at their root, the result of behavioral choices made by individuals. In the words of a former Washington, D.C., health commissioner: “Thirty thousand blacks and Hispanics die needlessly every year because of the chances they take and the choices they make.” The fact that so many young people make these tragic choices is evidence of the absence of a clear set of principles and morals that should guide their decisions. Rebuilding a foundation of values is the key to reversing the trend toward social disintegration.

The capacity to restore constructive values does exist. In the same neighborhoods that are most afflicted, there are individuals who, in spite of facing the same odds, have led their lives in accordance with a clear set of values and principles. Throughout the nation, hundreds of such mentors have proven the power of positive example. Their daily lives are a witness to such values as honesty, respect for life, personal responsibility, and sacrifice. In a public-housing development, for example, one resident has forgone meals to purchase thrift-store toys to equip the safe-house she has created for children of her community. On streets ridden with gang warfare, a man walks day after day, seeking youths who will respond to his call for an end to violence. These neighborhood leaders have raised up young protégés who, in turn, perpetuate a personal outreach to others in the community.

Social workers and therapists employ strategies such as environmental modification or chemical treatment to change the behavior of their clients, yet the results are nearly always temporary. Recent reports have revealed that the recidivism rate for detainees at boot camps (which many pols have celebrated as an “answer” to youth crime) is as high as 60 percent. After treatment at a high-cost therapy center in a New York resort town, one youth who had previously killed a cab driver simply “walked,” returned to Washington, and committed a second murder just blocks away from his first.

Grassroots leaders are committed for the long run and are not concerned with “perishable” solutions. Their goal is nothing short of conversion. Through continual effort and consistent example they have reached the hearts of those they serve, changing the way they view their lives and the world. One case in point is a drug-abuse program coordinated in San Antonio, Texas, by a former drug addict, Freddie Garcia, which has redirected the lives of more than 13,000 substance abusers—most of them hard-core addicts with addictions that had lasted for as long as twenty years. For these individuals and their families, it was clear that Freddie, not Freud, held the answer.

No Time to Turn Away

As inspiring as such grassroots champions may be, their accomplishments have not come easily. The traditional neighborhood-based institutions of support have not been held in a pristine state throughout three decades of government experimentation. The functions of stabilizing community entities have been undermined by policies that have, in effect, rewarded social deviance, creating, through their regulations, an environment that has actually been hostile to such practices as saving, work, and family formation.

Those who advocate the termination of government programs for low-income people say cavalierly that they should rely on the agents of support that have traditionally served the poor—families, churches, and neighborhood associations. Having spoken, they often simply wash their hands of the situation and turn away. The knowledge that grassroots activists can succeed where government programs have failed comes with a corresponding responsibility to support the neighborhood leaders who can effectively address their communities’ problems. This is not a time for benevolent nonintervention.

If we can catalyze a reversal of the social disintegration in our most afflicted neighborhoods, our nation as a whole will have hope of renewal. For the strategies and principles practiced by activists in inner-city neighborhoods can be adapted to communities of all income levels. Recently, for example, a wealthy colleague confided that when his own son became addicted to drugs, although teams of therapists and professionals could do nothing to help him, a simple grassroots leader was able to reach him and help him to turn his life around.

Reclaiming our culture is a spirit-based science, and its laboratories are the community-based initiatives that are, even now, bringing health where there was once only distress. We simply cannot afford to sit passively, ignoring our responsibility to those who are at the vanguard of revitalization.