Maybe there has never been a true golden age for running non-profit organizations and charitable groups. This is certainly not the best of times, with aggressive pushes to cut back on government spending and programs at every level, to impose higher standards of performance, to apply more rigorous tests of accountability, to tighten spending on crucial endeavors such as education and human services. Motivation for this trend comes out of declining confidence in public and private institutions, which in turn is adversely affecting policy and funding.
The politics of resentment is increasingly prominent. A diminishing sense of community interest and involvement has been matched by an entrenching of negative stereotypes and policies built around fearful and sometimes hateful perceptions of the other. Nearly a century ago, humorist Will Rogers observed: “There is nothing as easy as denouncing. It don’t take much to see that something is wrong, but it does take some eyesight to see what will put it right again.” As caustic commentary on social media and the public stage underscores, denouncing has become a national pastime.
Critics of social programs ask why so much cumulative domestic spending has not eliminated poverty. Funny thing, they never care to ask in the same vein why so much defense spending has not eliminated war. Point to programs where enrollment and waiting lists are increasing, and government is accused of fostering dependency in order to assert control. When success stories are spotlighted to show that an approach is working, program administrators are suspected of cherry-picking a few favorable outcomes to steer attention away from the more numerous failures.
Public and political pressure is forcing institutions and agencies across the landscape to either realign or face drastic retrenchment. Painful choice, but clear taxpayer imperative. It is quite difficult for an institution or organization to say goodbye to an operating model that has been in place for many moons. Yet, economic shifts, demographic changes, technology advances, research results, and governmental funding alterations are forcing them to do precisely that.
At the same time, private organizations find making a dramatic transition easier than government agencies, because they are not shackled by a generation or more of rosy political pronouncements at odds with practical experience.
The good news is that there is an instructive example of an organization making this transition. The United Way of Capital Region has moved from being primarily a conduit of funding to a partner committed to providing cost-effective services and measuring outcomes. Extensive internal reassessment and external consultation with individuals and groups across local communities has taken place. No longer will dollars be doled to a regular list of recipients. The areas of concentration are sensible and of demonstrated need.
*School readiness – research has increasingly identified this as a key indicator of future academic progress, yet it is an area where political delivery of dollars is glacial in pace. Private options must be beefed up and better utilized.
*Access to health care – pick a national plan, any plan, conservative , moderate, or liberal, and it will encounter the same tough challenges in urban centers and small rural communities. Any system where large numbers of people use the emergency room for primary care and institutions are expected to eat the costs of uncompensated care will be congenitally verging on breakdown.
*Basic needs – it is not enough to share a philosophy of independent living, or even to provide a set of tools, if there are no understandable instructions and no certainty they are sufficient for the necessary tasks.
*Workforce development – a job provides for the necessities of life, and yet jobs go begging because employers are not finding folks who possess the skill sets and work ethic they want. State-directed changes for better matches are coming through the education system, but help must also be provided to people on the periphery of education and the workforce.
Results are no longer measured in terms of dollars distributed. Rather, progress is charted according to people directly helped, often in partnership with community groups and agencies. Resources are targeted to crucial areas of need, rather than broadly attempting to float every boat. That sure seems to fit every definition of effectiveness and accountability.
Umbrella groups such as the United Way find demands rising to fill in where government services do not stretch or do not cover. Yet, their resources are increasingly spread thin across the expanding spectrum of needs. Many people say they will pay for tangible, measurable, and lasting progress. United Way has come up with a way to allow us to redeem those verbal indications. To effect change, they have moved beyond the standard definition of poverty to calculate what it takes for a family to do more than just struggle to survive.
A hard look has been taken at the numbers, county by county. Statistics buttress anecdotal evidence and compelling case studies. For a single individual and for a family of four, what does a survival budget look like, and what does a stability budget look like? The results are an alarming picture of the gap between what bottom-of-the-scale wages yield in contrast to the living expenses families must confront. Last August, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran this revelatory headline atop the front page: “$60K: What a family of 4 needs to get by in Pa.” The lower the median income in a county, the higher that mountain of a number appears.
Most people tend to think of the poverty level as the key stat for measuring what a family needs to survive. But that calculation falls short of any practical accounting of the real costs for housing, food, transportation, health care, child care, insurance, and other necessities.
Last year was a watershed, with the rollout of ALICE. ALICE describes the circumstances of a substantial portion of the population, those who work but do not make enough to cover necessities. It defines a life where an adverse event – injury, illness, unanticipated expense – can be catastrophic. When workers do not make enough to pay for the essentials of living, and have no financial safety net to cover setbacks such illness or reduced hours, platitudes and exhortations from the rest of us are not much help. This is by no means a marginal concern. The percentage of ALICE households nearly doubles those living in poverty. Together, they account for well over one third of Pennsylvania families. They are all around us, so we cannot in good conscience fail to see them.
The obstacles to a sustainable life – safe and quality child care, dependable transportation, reliable broadband access – are found everywhere, but are particularly acute in rural areas. Single parents need to be tireless magicians to cope. Too often the help they receive is a lecture on the advantages of a stable marriage. ALICE initiatives go beyond the standard remedy of getting people connected with affordable and accessible resources. It is making sure individuals possess the practical skills to manage a household budget and associated responsibilities for long-run success.
This new approach appears to have energized the professionals, volunteers, partners, and contributors who constitute the United Way. Naturally, this spirit carries to the people who are being served. It is always good to remember how many business and professional people contribute time, talent, and resources to United Way.
Much attention and effort has been directed lately toward reforming criminal justice policies. The central thrust is to give wrongdoers and prisoners a second chance to get life right. Spending money now to achieve that purpose will yield substantial savings down the road, policymakers are convinced.
Makes sense then to give working families a real chance to do better than struggling daily in what can seem a hopeless attempt to make ends meet. Say hello to ALICE. Say thank you to the United Ways for conceiving and carrying out this initiative to assist and strengthen families, neighborhoods, and communities across our commonwealth.
David A. Atkinson is an Associate of The Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.