Nothing Works…but Everything Might

Month: June, 2011

Moving the Needle on Poverty: Why Nothing Works, But Everything Might

Today, the American Constitution Society Blog published a post I wrote about poverty and collective impact.  I’m cross-posting it here:

Countless urban neighborhoods are drowning in a miserable mix of poverty, bad schools, food-deserts lacking grocery stores and food-swamps providing an overabundance of fast food (I’ve written previously in this space about health care reform and the power of real food), and a dearth of jobs. Every year, countless non-profit community agencies provide a stunning number of hours of service to these communities. Yet intergenerational poverty maintains its stubborn, iron grip. Time and again, children drop out of school and face pathless futures.

It’s easier to design solutions to discrete problems than to back up and look at an entire social system. And so we try to improve the educational lot of poor children by spending more money per child, by lowering the teacher-to-student ratio, by going “back to basics,” or some other idea intended to leave no child behind.  But think of all that these approaches leave to the side: healthy, fresh food, without which children cannot retain facts and learn how to think; physical education opportunities, without which children are at a much higher risk of obesity; public safety, without which children live amidst the kind of stress and fear that fractures their ability to learn; and child care, without which children lack the kind of consistent adult guidance necessary to sustained learning. And we haven’t even touched health care.

The scenario is similar if an agency tries to move the needle on unemployment by improving only an individual’s job-seeking skills.  We’ve left aside job development (are there even jobs to apply for?); public transit (where is the job, and can the person get there?); child care (who takes care of the children while Mom and Dad are working?); job skills; and — critically important but often overlooked — financial management skills like budgeting, saving, and improving credit scores.

We face a situation where nothing seems to work — the best-executed and best-intended interventions fail to move the needle, year after year after painful year.

But where nothing works, everything might.

Think about it.  What if we tried to solve an entire set of interconnected problems at once?

Sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it?

But we don’t have to wonder whether this will work; we already know it does.  Here are just a few examples from California and elsewhere:

Promise Neighborhoods.  Modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, this federal initiative, currently run out of the Department of Education, makes grants to communities to develop schools with wrap-around social services, “from cradle to career to college.”  The California Assembly recently passed a bill to create a state-level program; Senator Harkin has dropped a bill to make Promise Neighborhoods a permanent federal program. Follow its progress at PolicyLink’s Promise Neighborhoods Institute.

United Way SparkPoint Centers.  The Centers provide integrated financial counseling services to families with the goals of increasing assets, improving credit scores, increasing income, and a reduction of debt-to-income ratio.  I recently wrote about the United Way of the Bay Area’s ninth SparkPoint Center, soon to open in San Francisco’s Mission District.

California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities program.  TCE’s ten-year strategic direction focuses on the importance of place to health.  The program’s milestones involve reducing childhood obesity and youth violence and increasing school attendance and access to quality health care. 

Oakland Unified School District’s African-American Male Achievement Initiative.  The Initiative will create systems that support prevention, intervention, and retention for African-American youth.  The Initiative actively seeks partnership with community organizations, the school district, parents, and foundations to build “full-service community schools” that include employment, language, and health care services alongside education.

Obvious challenges to this approach abound. The attempt to coordinate a large number of agencies could rapidly generate barely controlled chaos, and where those agencies must co-create an agenda and attack plan, patience and time are required in large measures. Funders like to give money to agencies working on discrete, easily measured problems, because it’s easier to quantify and describe clearly bounded outcomes. The kinds of projects we’re talking about have five- and ten- and twenty-year time horizons, and that’s longer than funders want to contemplate. Partnership with, and capacity-building within, the vulnerable communities most in need of these projects is critically important but arduous work.

But a sea change is coming. Boston-based FSG Social Impact Consultants leaders Mark Kramer and John Kania recently formulated a concept they call “collective impact,” denoting cross-sector collaborations that integrate and coordinate a wide range of services and programs focused on a single social challenge. In a blog post titled “Revolutionary Reboot,” I wrote that “collaborative projects powered by collective impact also function like a human body:  organic, proactive as well as reactive, and able to shift constantly in response to the conditions it encounters.” For organic problems, there are organic solutions with collaborative DNA.

You can track related developments at the Healthy Eating Active Living Convergence Partnership; PolicyLink; FSG Social Impact Consultants’ Knowledge Exchange; and many more sites, including my blog, Nothing Works…But Everything Might.


Sixth Circuit upholds the Affordable Care Act

President Obama’s Affordable Care Act won a significant victory today in Thomas More Law Center v. Obama.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld its constitutionality, and two of the judges on the panel are Republican appointees.

The political party is significant because, thus far, the constitutionality of the ACA has been upheld by Democratic appointees and rejected by Republican appointees.  Affirmation by this panel is (I hope) a big step forward for the ACA as it makes its way to Supreme Court review.

The original plaintiffs argued that the ACA unconstitutionally compelled them to purchase minimum-coverage health insurance.  They argued either that Congress exceeded its Commerce Clause power when it required this purchase, or that the penalty associated with failure to buy insurance is an unconstitutional tax.  The Sixth Circuit found that the ACA is valid under the Commerce Clause because it regulates economic activity with a substantial effect on interstate commerce (particularly because the costs of health care for the uninsured are passed on to health care providers, then to private insurers, then to consumers).  The court also rejected another popular anti-ACA argument: that it unconstitutionally regulates inactivity.  To the contrary, wrote the court: it regulates activity, since nearly every citizen is a consumer of health care.

I hope the trend keeps rolling in the federal appeals courts.  The ACA offers so much promise for people without access to health care–let’s give it a chance to show what it can accomplish.

Here are the opinion and the Wall Street Journal Blog coverage.

SparkPoint in the Mission: Collective Impact for Financial Self-Sufficiency

Sheltered by Twin Peaks to the west, the Mission District boasts more sun and warmth than any other part of San Francisco.  Vibrant, echoing with music and brimming with public art and neighborhood markets, the densely-populated Mission pulses with life.  Its roots strike deep: the Yelamu Indians lived here thousands of years before the arrival of the Spanish; and Mission San Francisco de Asis (now Mission Dolores), founded in 1776, is the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco.  For over fifty years, the Mission has been the city’s center of Latino art, culture, and music. 

And now the Mission’s residents face significant economic challenges.  The poverty rate here exceeds the city’s average, and the stubborn recession has made jobs especially hard to find. In a region where financial self-sufficiency exceeds the reach of so many families, and in a state where unemployment recently hit 11.9%, the Mission stands out.  But the Mission has the “fire in the belly” necessary to come roaring back, which is why the United Way of the Bay Area chose to site its ninth SparkPoint Center here. 

One core intuition drives the SparkPoint Centers: people living in poverty face multiple, inter-related problems, and therefore they need bundled services and personalized coaching.  Not earning enough money is often connected to a lack of job training or education, low credit scores coincide with insufficient assets and too much debt, and poverty often affects family health due to factors such as environmental quality and lack of access to recreation and healthy food.  Accessing help one service at a time is both overwhelming and confusing.  And as I wrote previously, isolating and treating only one of these problems is like using a band-aid to cover a scrape while ignoring a person’s broken arm and concussion.  Concerted action isn’t just more effective: it’s the only thing that will work.

Previous SparkPoint Centers tested the hypothesis that families will achieve economic self-sufficiency more dependably and more often if multiple services are bundled together under one roof, and if families take advantage of more than two services over an extended period (the Centers make multiple-year commitments to their client families).  The desired outcomes are quantifiable and measurable: livable income that reaches the self-sufficiency standard for the relevant geographic area ($65,000 for a family of four in San Francisco); a credit score of 650 or above; savings equal to three months of living expenses; and a debt-to-income ratio (DTI) of less than 40%.  The early evidence is in: and the answer is a resounding yes.  The Oakland SparkPoint Center measured client success against specific benchmarks including decreasing DTI by 5%; increasing income by 5%; increasing credit score by 50 points; and either accumulating two weeks of savings or meeting a specific savings goal. Interim outcome measurements at the Oakland SparkPoint center demonstrate that 65% of the families taking advantage of two integrated services reached intermediate benchmarks for the four outcomes.  For families enrolling in three or more services, the success rate was 85%. 

“One-stop resource centers” are hardly new.  What makes SparkPoint different?  Primarily, the power of collective impact.  Government and non-profit service providers don’t just occupy the same space–they work together to provide integrated services to clients, and they use one system and one set of metrics to track client progress in an Efforts to Outcome database.  And starting with the Mission SparkPoint, the partners will more consciously pursue the shared goals, priorities, and outcome measurements that collective-impact initiatives establish collaboratively.

The unified SparkPoint approach, encompassing livable income, credit score at least 650, three months of savings, and DTI less than 40%, produces robust and significant results impressive enough to draw industry’s notice.  On June 3, Chevron donated $1 million to the brand-new SparkPoint Center in Richmond.  Visitors have toured Bay Area centers from as far away as the Netherlands; the concept has been copied all over the country.  Its flexibility and scalability will likely be tested soon; the Mission SparkPoint leadership is currently considering adding partners to boost job development, public health, fresh food access, and more.  The core concept is collaboration on an equity basis with shared agenda, goals, and measurement: collective impact in motion.

On June 14, the group of ten community partners that will open the Center, led by the Mission Economic Development Agency, will sit down at a table at Plaza Adelante in the heart of the Mission to imagine–together–a supercharged Mission District revitalized by the power of small business, improved credit, increased assets, and financial self-sufficiency.  (Read the original San Francisco SparkPoint RFP, including a more detailed explanation of the SparkPoint concept and a list of FAQs.)  The Mission was born before San Francisco was even an idea.  Now, as the United Way sparks economic revitalization, entrepreneurship , and empowerment here, the Mission SparkPoint Center could provide a national-level model for community-based economic recovery.  I’ll periodically post about the Mission SparkPoint Center here.  (Disclosure: I am a founding member of the UWBA Women’s Leadership Circle, which supports the UWBA’s ten-year project to reduce Bay Area poverty by 50%.)