I see liberal advocates nipping at the heels of local policymakers, winning this or that knick-knack for low-income communities, while the basic condition of the poor remains unchanged. In my east coast city, there’s been a deepening poverty over the past decade, a widening gap between the rich and poor. Many low-income people have been driven from their homes by skyrocketing rents.
And yet advocates continue pressing on. What small concessions they manage to win for our most vulnerable neighbors are often overwhelmed by the effect of more draconian assaults on the poor at the national level.
In the U.S. Congress we see the spectacle of politicians who don’t say no to foolish tax cuts. Put into office by powerful political machines, they look to cuts in Medicare and food stamps to make a dent in the current deficit.
As I see it, there have been three basic problems with philanthropy’s attempts to address the issue of persistent poverty in this country:
1. Strategy The untidy truth about liberal advocacy is that the basic condition of the poor will never, ever change until (1) we get big money out of politics, and (2) the poor vote in far greater numbers. Local, state, and national advocates might win a skirmish here and there, but without these two changes, the battle is essentially lost. Many policymakers are convinced, as one of my city council members once said, that “No one was ever elected to public office by being an advocate for the poor.” If this is the case (and if it isn’t, let’s at least debate it), shouldn’t the greatest number of resources be focused on meaningful campaign finance and lobbying reform, and on voter registration?
2. Coordination Meanwhile, there appears to be little or no coordination of all this progressive advocacy work. Local advocates rarely speak with or inform the work of national advocates, and vice versa. There’s a rally here, a report released there, small contributions to a growing sum that doesn’t appear to have a grand total. This work is important, however incremental the gains might be. But I know there must be greater minds out there, people better bankrolled, who can and must give direction to progressive philanthropy’s random walk.
3. Scale My own foundation’s means are very limited, and our influence on the sector is even smaller. We support those local advocacy groups that do little more than slow the continuing downward slide of the poor. But there are tens of thousands of foundations in this country, many of them sharing progressive goals but choosing nevertheless to work in isolation from one another. I understand the reasons for this, but it still strikes me as a inglorious fact about our sector that we can’t more frequently and more effectively pool our resources to make a real difference in the lives of the poor.
Albert Ruesga blogs on foundations, nonprofits, and philanthropy at White Courtesy Telephone.