Our Current System and The Alternative
Our current system for helping those living at the bottom of the economic ladder is based primarily on identifying need or weakness and designing programs to fill those needs. The Alternative is to recognize and identify initiative and talent in these families themselves, and reinforce it through support, including encouragement, dollars, and connections.
The global expansion of technology offers the opportunity for those seeking to reduce poverty to engage families directly. Funders have encouraged collaboration by social service organizations with limited success. The Alternative calls for the collaboration of families, nationally and globally. This alternative reliance on families helping one another represents a significant disruption to the helping sector.
The positive examples of mutuality among families are everywhere but are largely ignored because of our current system’s focus on need. These self-made successes provide the most tangible solutions and provide choices to other families in similar circumstances. Families should be encouraged to collaborate, learn from and help one another, and scale these homegrown successes. It is after families demonstrate positive steps forward and ownership of their solutions that direct funding can be made available, just as angel investors look at an idea’s initial development before investing. However, this requires a change in mindset and behavior on behalf of philanthropists, policymakers, and the nonprofit sector.
The Alternative’s Bill of Rights: Key Parameters for Funders
Funds or investments that seek to shift our current helping system from its focus on need to a focus on supporting initiative should employ the following key parameters.
- Leadership: Families should be recognized as the experts of their own lives and should be supported to lead their own change.
- Funders and those in positions of influence should provide awards, fellowships and recognition to ordinary families who solve problems (positive deviants). This will encourage more mutuality and ground-up initiative that can ripple to scale.
- Funders should change their requests for proposals and seek grantees that identify the leadership strengths of the targeted families, rather than using professionals to lead.
- Social Capital: Families have a responsibility to rebuild or strengthen a sense of community and mutuality. Social capital and social networks play a critical role in enhancing and sustaining economic mobility.
- Funds should encourage and incentivize the collaboration between families and this should take precedence over collaboration of service providers.
- Families will have greater chances to climb the ladder of success if resources or policies are targeted to strengthening, supporting, and expanding their networks and social capital.
- Direct to Families: Funds should be accessible directly by families as they take initiative and make progress.
- Funders should significantly shift the amount of resources that go directly to families, without conditions or services attached, for use at their own discretion.
- Data: Ongoing data about family initiative and progress should be used as the marker for giving families direct awards, grants, or loans.
- Families should have direct access to, and personal ownership of, data that will empower them in achieving their aspirations.
- Communications: Should highlight the contributions and positive actions taken by residents of their own accord, over professional initiatives. This will begin to break the stereotypes that characterize the low-income as poor decision-makers, lazy, or helpless.
- Funders and policymakers must support this cultural shift by supporting targeted and comprehensive communications strategies, storytelling, major and social media amplification, and data collection and visualizations.
- Policies and Strategies: These should bolster self-determination leaving social welfare programs only for those in crisis.
- Low-income people would experience greater economic mobility by having the ability to procure or “buy” services on their own terms, like middle-class or upper-middle class people.
- Funds (not vouchers) that directly match what families can afford to pay would give families access to services in the private sector reducing need for developing separate (and unequal) special services for the poor.
Before there were any social programs and policies, entire communities of immigrants as well as former slaves helped one another to build careers and their own economic ecosystems. This mutuality was generally locally spread. Today such efforts by groups of families are scalable and cost-effective through technology, encouraging new ideas and shared expertise. Such a systemic disintermediation offers the potential for revitalizing the American Dream, and expanding its opportunities more quickly and deeply to people at the lower end of the economic scale, than we have been able to accomplish since the beginning of the War on Poverty in the late 1960s. Neighborhood Economics captures this movement. The pioneers are making real progress and are eager to share and learn. Join us in San Francisco’s Mission District on March 22-23.
Kevin Jones has been working to find ways to fund and support groups working with entrepreneurs who need friends and family funding who don’t have a rich uncle. He believes that entrepreneurship as the path to wealth for marginalized communities.