Nonprofits key player in fighting poverty

Rick Cohen
Rick Cohen

Rick Cohen

The most important finding of a recent Brookings Institution/Federal Reserve Bank study on concentrated poverty was not the descriptions of joblessness, high crime, poor educations and negative health outcomes.

The understated conclusion from the 16 case studies of rural and urban concentrated poverty was the importance of the nonprofit sector.

When nonprofit organizations — community development corporations, human-service agencies, faith-based organizations and others — were active, engaged, organizing and advocating, these neighborhoods were making some halting progress.

Where nonprofit capacity was minimal or nonexistent, the neighborhoods more than languished and even declined.

The study examined desperately poor communities in the U.S. as diverse as urban neighborhoods and rural areas.

But the obvious finding about the nonprofit sector virtually jumped off the pages of the report, based on a number of compelling examples of nonprofit courage and

* In West Fresno, Calif., where the private market had basically collapsed, it was a community development corporation that bucked the prevailing wisdom and instigated the creation of a neighborhood shopping center providing important services and jobs for the residents.

* In the combined Old Hill, Six Corners and South End neighborhoods of Springfield, Mass., a collaboration of Springfield Neighborhood Housing Services, the Hampden
Hampshire Housing Partnership, and Habitat for Humanity have joined forces to create housing for first-time homebuyers.

* In Holmes County, Miss., the West Holmes Community Development Corporation is carrying out a remarkable program integrating sustainable agriculture, youth employment, skills development and health and nutrition issues, an impressive display of creativity that rivals the best efforts of much-better-heeled nonprofits elsewhere in the U.S.

In some cases, outside networks provided support to local groups, particularly the Enterprise Foundation’s support of a housing fund in Rochester, N.Y., to support the acquisition, rehab and resale of vacant homes, and the creation of a Center for Family Prosperity by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation connecting low-income
Milwaukeeans to jobs.

But frequently, the nonprofits on the ground were on their own, with little backup and less funding, particularly from private foundations that showed up in only a minuscule way in these otherwise comprehensive case studies, especially in the cities that lacked large indigenous foundations within their borders — the grant programming of the Kellogg Foundation being a noteworthy exception in rural communities in this case study compilation.

There can be no question that concentrated poverty in the U.S. requires a massive new commitment by the federal government.

This would replace the all-but-intentional degrading of the federal government sector during the past eight years of the Bush Administration.

But if President-elect Obama is committed to tackling concentrated poverty, he needs to do more than resuscitate government.

He has to make sure he provides the resources to build and sustain a network of community-based nonprofits with the visioning, planning and implementation skills to serve as intermediaries between government and the poverty-stricken communities government should help.

The message to foundations is also clear.

In too many of the case studies, philanthropy is missing in action.

It’s fine to be doing the case studies, though some communities such as McDowell County in West Virginia feel a bit “studied to death”, but the nonprofits in these poor
communities need sufficient funding, flexible capital and sustainability to be capable of functioning in the response and solution to concentrated poverty.

The backstory to these concentrated poverty case studies is important.

It is a narrative of the crucial role of the nonprofit sector, the important support provided by nonprofit infrastructure, and the need for foundations to address concentrated poverty with dollars on the street, into the hands of the groups on the front lines.

Rick Cohen is national correspondent for The Nonprofit Quarterly.

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