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Wednesday, 18 November 2015 13:10

Reducing Poverty: The Joseph Principle

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Reducing Poverty: The Joseph Principle

Robert L. Woodson Sr.

Robert L. Woodson is founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, an empowerment organization that helps low-income self-help groups. He is the author of hundreds of articles and several books. This speech was given at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania. This article was reprinted from Vision & Values, a publication of Grove City College.


One of the fundamental moral underpinnings of America is Biblical: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done unto me" (Matthew 25:40 KJV). Until the 1930s, the care of the least among us was in the hands of our ethnic and religious groups and the local institutions they controlled. Government did not intervene in the dynamics of families or the networks that supported them. But the stock market crash and resulting economic failure of the Great Depression exhausted neighborhood support systems across the nation, and for the first time the government intervened in the economy on a large scale. Within time, the programs of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that started as "ambulance services" morphed into "transportation systems." However, even with those changes, the moral traditions of American culture remained intact until the storms of the 1960s.

The War on Poverty

In the 1960s, the welfare state was enlarged into the "War on Poverty." President Lyndon Baines Johnson dramatically increased the amount of money spent addressing poverty. In the 1930s, federal money went to the individual. In the 1960s, the money went to "services." This was a major paradigm shift. From it arose the poverty-industrial complex -- an entire industry revolving around pathology. A huge provider industry evolved psychologists, social workers, and counselors; for every problem there was a different master's degree holder to solve that problem.

Unfortunately, providers tended to ask not which problems were solvable but which ones were fundable, which is to say that providers were rewarded not for solving problems but for the proliferation of problems. This is not to argue that everything that was done was harmful. When Bobby Kennedy made his trip to Appalachia, he found starving children. In Florida, elderly people died with no food in their stomachs. Child nutrition programs and elder care eliminated the more pernicious forms of poverty.

Nor has there been malicious intent on the part of the providers. Those who go into the fields of psychology or sociology certainly don't go into them for the money. This was a situation where there was no willful intent to injure, but it was a misguided intent, resulting in programs and policies that were misguided. The helping hand inadvertently injured. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his Letters From Prison, the most difficult behavior to confront is folly, not malice. It is very difficult to confront folly if someone is doing something with the intent to help without realizing that they actually are producing injury.

The welfare laws that grew from these poison roots offered perverse incentives. With resources going to services instead of individuals, people became government clients, sapping them of independence, dignity, and initiative. A married couple could not live in public housing. This destabilized marriage. If an unmarried woman receiving public assistance married a man who was gainfully employed, her benefits would be ended. This pulled another plank from the incentive to marry and establish a household. Out-of-wedlock births dramatically increased, particularly in the black community. In 1962, 85 percent of all black families had a man and a woman raising a family. Today, only about 47 percent of homes have a married man and woman raising children. It also provided a disincentive to seek steady employment. Rent was fixed at 30 percent of income for people receiving public assistance. This clause had the effect of making people reluctant to take certain jobs or promotions for fear of pricing themselves out of affordable housing.

Social Injustice

Another major policy fallacy was that social injustice racism was a primary cause of the problems of poverty. In order to challenge the faulty assumptions of the 1960s, we need to look at black America before that decade. From 1940 to 1970 the poverty rate dropped from 87 to 30 percent, a reduction of two-thirds. In contrast, the poverty rate has only declined from 30 to 24 percent in the past 35 years, despite the presence of armies of social workers and mountains of money.

The core of the black community in the hundred years between the end of the Civil War and the War on Poverty was the family, a belief in God and business formation. Up until 1965, the marriage rate for blacks was over 80 percent. In fact, during the Depression, the black marriage rate was higher than that of whites. In the first 50 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, black Americans accumulated a personal wealth of $700 million. They owned over 40,000 businesses, 40,000 churches, and 937,000 farms. The literacy rate climbed from five to 70 percent. Black commercial enclaves in Durham, North Carolina, and the Greenwood Avenue section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, were together known as the Negro Wall Street. Blacks in both districts turned harsh Jim Crow laws to their advantage by using their entrepreneurial skills to serve a segregated community. Black Durham survived as a thriving economic center until federal and state urban renewal programs wiped out most of Durham's black business district.

The fundamental flaw in the approach toward poverty in the black community was the insistence that anything all black was automatically bad. Sixties radicals interpreted separate to be inherently unequal rather than strategically unequal. They renounced the values of family, faith, and self-reliance in favor of revenge, the redistribution of wealth, and the embrace of a political spoils system. These assumptions were taking root at just the time the civil rights movement was reaching its apex and becoming a race grievance industry. The movement wanted to make the case that segregation was harmful. It needed the federal government to intervene in the states. Unfortunately, for this to happen, the story of successful black entrepreneurship had to be abandoned or ignored. Black universities and colleges severed the technical assistance they provided black businesses and ceased publication of journals that described their triumphs. The leaders of the civil rights movement portrayed blacks as hapless victims of an omnipotent system. The good that came from the civil rights movement was the replacement of Jim Crow laws with more equitable statutes. The bad news that resulted from the civil rights movement was that blacks were cut off from their heritage of success, and the stereotype of blacks as a perpetual victim class was institutionalized. The War on Poverty broke down the moral immune system of low-income black neighborhoods and made them breeding grounds of dysfunction. The resulting social chaos has been predictable.

As the racial and sexual revolutions merged with the rising welfare state, they formed a perfect storm that continues to demolish family structures. Racial prejudice continues to be a problem in the United States. However, it is not the most important problem facing even the black community. Continuing to focus on race and supporting those who profit from maintaining a grievance industry is keeping this nation from addressing some threatening fundamental problems. If racial reconciliation were immediately possible, it still would not answer the high rates of black-on-black homicide and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But investment in those grassroots institutions that bring about moral and spiritual healing can address those problems, and at the same time, racial reconciliation will be a natural byproduct.

Joseph and Pharaoh

If the public and private sectors are to refocus their efforts on poverty so that their contribution will have a positive impact, several crucial questions must be answered: Who are the true experts of social revitalization? What principles should guide funding decisions? What qualities are common to all effective programs? Unfortunately, as a nation, we are prone to place our trust in irrelevant authority. Just as commercials lead consumers to believe that sports stars are experts on nutrition or footwear, there are those who would have us believe that the MBAs and sociologists in distant universities can provide expert advice in salvaging our inner-city neighborhoods. But the solutions to the problems of our nation's Harlems will never be found in the Harvards of this nation.

The good news is that solutions do exist. Today, among the ruins of inner-city neighborhoods, there are embers of health and restoration in grassroots leaders that we call "Josephs." Joseph, you remember, was one of 13 children born to his father. And Joseph was blessed with being able to interpret dreams. But his brothers were angry at him when Joseph said that he dreamed he saw them bowing down to him; as a consequence they faked his death and sold him into slavery. Joseph languished for many years as a slave, but in every situation as a slave Joseph became the best slave. When he was falsely imprisoned, he became the best prisoner. In the depths of the dungeon, Joseph accepted his fate and served faithfully. He was, even in prison, raised to a position of leadership and was placed in charge of the other prisoners. Years later, when the pharaoh himself was troubled by ominous dreams which none of his counselors or astrologers could interpret, he heard about Joseph and his ability to explain dreams.

When the pharaoh described his dreams to Joseph, he responded that they were portents that seven years of bountiful harvest would be followed by seven years of famine. He advised that during the prosperous years they needed to store and prepare for the famine. The pharaoh was not deterred by the fact that Joseph was not of the same ethnicity, that he came from a "dysfunctional Hebrew family," or that he was a prisoner. He trusted and followed Joseph's advice, appointing him to administer his harvest with power second only to himself. When the famine came, pharaoh's was the only land that was prepared.

Today, in communities throughout the nation, hundreds of modern-day Josephs are at work restoring spiritual health in their neighborhoods, guiding others to lives of value and fulfillment. Although Joseph was betrayed and treated unjustly, he held firmly to the belief that God could work through any situation and, even in the worst circumstances, he continued to serve without resentment. He never yielded to bitterness, and his attitude determined his availability to God. Likewise, our modern-day Josephs have faced adversity and injustice without bitterness or resentment.

The answers to many of the most pressing problems that America now faces can be found in the men and women who have come out of prison, who live in drug-infested, crime-ridden neighborhoods, some of whom have fallen themselves, but have been able to recover through their faith in God. There are countless examples of these Josephs who have been called to responsibility from jails, from drugs, from crime, from prostitution. Their authority is attested to, not by their position and prestige in society, but by the thousands of lives they have been able to reach and change.

These neighborhood Josephs go unrecognized, unappreciated and underutilized. They are working with individuals that all the other conventional service deliverers have given up on. They take only the worst cases and they work with meager resources, yet their effectiveness eclipses that of conventional professional remedies. For 23 years the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise has acted like a Geiger counter sweeping these neighborhoods for these two types of Josephs: those who come from lives of crime and degradation as well as others who have never committed a crime. They are the natural antibodies in their communities. And once we find them, we bring them together so they begin to form an immune system in their communities. We assist them the way the human immune system is assisted, by providing them with the kind of resources that strengthen them. We provide training, technical assistance, and access to material resources so that this immune system can grow and begin to transform from within the neighborhood and make dramatic improvements in the lives of the people living there. Why haven't we heard more about these leaders? Elitism has caused us to dismiss the possibility of remedies emerging from low-income neighborhoods. With silent prejudice, faith-based strategies are dismissed out of hand in spite of their consistent track records of effectiveness. In addition to many overtly faith-based programs, there are many grassroots leaders whose outreach is motivated by a heartfelt spirit of service but is not affiliated with any particular religion or faith.

Modern-Day Josephs

There are a number of defining characteristics that modern-day Josephs have in common:

1. Their programs are open to all comers. The grassroots leaders do not target their services exclusively to individuals of any particular race or background. Help is offered, instead, on the basis of the need a person has and his or her desire to change.

2. Neighborhood healers have the same ZIP code as the people they serve. They have firsthand knowledge of the problems they live with and they have a personal stake in the success of their solutions.

3. Their approach is flexible. They know that every person cannot be reached in exactly the same way.

4. Effective grassroots programs contain an essential element of reciprocity. They do not practice blind charity but require something in return from the individuals they serve. They recognize that treating them only as "clients" would result in their becoming poor citizens.

5. Clear behavioral guidelines and discipline are an important part of their programs.

6. Grassroots healers fulfill the role of a parent, providing not only authority and structure, but also the love that is necessary for an individual to undergo healing, growth and development. Like a parent, their love is unconditional and resilient, in spite of backsliding and even in the face of betrayal.

7. Grassroots leaders are committed for the long haul. Most of them began their outreach with their own meager resources. They are committed for a lifetime, not for the duration of a grant that funds a program.

8. They are on call virtually 24 hours a day, in contrast to a therapist who comes once a week for a 45-minute session, or staff who come from a 9-to-5 job and then return to their distant homes.

9. The healing they offer involves an immersion in an environment of care and mutual support with a community of individuals.

10. These Josephs are united in a brotherhood of service. They are eager to share ideas and strategies. They offer earnest support to each other in times of struggle and sincerely celebrate one another's victories.

Although today's Josephs deserve to be heeded by modern-day pharaohs (political leaders and leaders of the business and philanthropic community), their effectiveness is not dependent on such recognition. Long before support or acknowledgement came from the others, our nation's neighborhood healers committed themselves to lives of service and they engendered miraculous changes in the lives they touched. Though these grassroots leaders accomplished extraordinary feats with little support, an alliance between today's Josephs and pharaohs could provide the support that is needed to allow their transforming efforts to expand and further develop to benefit the entire society.

Applying Market Principles to the Social Economy

This type of partnership requires a major overhaul in how we view the poor. Many policymakers on both the Left and the Right see the poor as hopelessly lost in a sea of pathology with few personal redeeming qualities. This view falsely concludes that only certified social workers can solve social problems. By contrast, the marketplace is "results oriented" and expects a return. If a person like Bill Gates with genius and drive were in the "social economy," he would be discounted because he lacks the proper academic qualifications.

We must look for nonconventional solutions in nontraditional places. We do not hesitate to do that in our business economy. In the marketplace, workable solutions are embraced wherever they exist. If a teenage computer hacker develops software that has capacities beyond those of well-trained computer specialists, he is rewarded. In like manner we look for cures in the roots and herbs of the rain forests of Brazil and New Guinea. Some of our most important discoveries have come about because someone did not focus on the source of the discovery but looked at the content of what was produced. Regardless of the certifications, education, or "legitimacy" of social service providers, if their "solutions" have not had a measurably positive impact on a problem that neighborhood-based efforts have effectively addressed, we must remove the blindfolds of bias and embrace the strategies that work, no matter how untutored the source of the information may be.

Next, organizations need to measure outcomes, not process. Trillions of dollars of public and private funds have been spent on failed programs because of a disregard for outcomes. Too many sponsors of private sector initiatives, carrying on the legacy of the public sector programs, have placed little emphasis on evaluation of their effectiveness.

We must beware of top-down collaboratives. Collaboration has been the buzzword in a multitude of multimillion-dollar experiments of private sector social service initiatives and community revitalization efforts. However, the purported paradigm shift to "collaborative strategies" had little impact, not because it was underfunded, but because collaborative community building did not use a fundamentally different approach. Essentially, like their public sector counterparts, these initiatives were designed and conceived from the top down.

Put another way, the main failure of the public sector approach was not that its strategies were fragmented but the fact that its programs were designed by professionals in distant bureaucracies and then parachuted into low-income communities. This approach excluded the advice and insight of indigenous grass roots leaders who have the vision, creativity, and commitment to forge innovative, workable solutions to the societal crises that permeate not only our nation's inner cities, but rural and suburban communities as well. Their bold entrepreneurship is in need of one thing: support from venture capitalists of the corporate arena who recognize their potential and are willing to invest capital to strengthen the organizational structure and management skills that are necessary to expand their remarkably effective outreach.

Finally, we should invest in initiatives designed to create "marketable character"; i.e., good potential employees and citizens. For many individuals, poverty is a result of the choices they make. Without a change in character they will not be ready to take advantage of job training or other programs designed to integrate them into mainstream society. Faith-based grassroots leaders act as "character coaches" or "moral mentors." They have the ability to transform hearts and instill values, resulting in individuals who are drug free, work ready and positively motivated to be good employees. As an executive of a major telecommunications company once wrote in a Wall Street Journal commentary, "I can train a worker to properly handle a PC board; I can't train him to show up to work sober or to respect authority."


The National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise strongly believes that such efforts should be built upon the bedrock of successful, life-transforming abilities of neighborhood and faith-based organizations, and that private and government resources should be brought to that base in a creative fashion. Neighborhood-based programs, particularly those that are faith-based, have proved they can solve problems such as substance abuse, youth crime and violence, and the kind of internal despair that are more acute in low-income communities but that are increasingly cutting across all societal lines. And these solutions forged in the crucible of poverty -- the front lines of our nation's culture wars -- can be exported to the gilded ghettoes of suburbia and rural white America. *

"[T]he importance of piety and religion; of industry and frugality; of prudence, economy, regularity and an even government; all . . . are essential to the well-being of a family." --Samuel Adams

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