Strings attached … The cash vs. charity debate

handout graphic from NYT OpEd

from the NYT OpEd

Suncoast Community Capital takes seriously its mission to work with people of low income to achieve financial success.  That’s why a recent OP-ED in the NYT got us talking: “Let Them Eat Cash” by Christopher Blattman.

The author questions if just giving the poor -whether in Uganda or the US – cash directly would help in addition to, and perhaps as much as, the programs designed to help them.  He cited an example:

In Uganda, my colleagues and I worked with a nonprofit that offered $150 and five days of business planning to 900 of the poorest women in the world. After 18 months, the women had twice the incomes of a random control group.

Here in New York, the Opportunity NYC Family Rewards program has experimented with cash transfers to poor families. It sent $8,700 over three years to thousands of families. A randomized evaluation showed that self-employment went up and hunger and extreme hardship went down, at least while the cash transfers lasted.

So these type of direct transfers have shown promising results – the same kind of results a social service or nonprofit hopes to achieve (poverty alleviation, less hunger, self-employment).  What is one of the biggest obstacles to a more widespread acceptance / implementation? You guessed it – the attitudes of those holding the resources.

The Family Independence Initiative tried paying poor American families in return for setting and meeting goals. Its demonstration project showed promising results. But the No. 1 obstacle the organization said it faced? Mistrust by donors and other nonprofits who held hard to the view that poor people can’t make good decisions.

SCC believes that having little income does not mean being incapable or lazy.  As an organization, we strive to contribute to the creation of options from which families can chose. Blattman ponders the primary duty of agencies who work with the poor …

Perhaps our first duty is to do no harm, but I say that’s our second duty. Our first is to be skeptical of stereotypes of those we purport to help.

The radical takeaway here is the idea that those in need of help are the also capable of knowing how to help themselves.  Let’s leave this debate another way – it is not an EITHER / OR debate but rather a combination, an evolution, a hybrid and a partnership model that can take people and the agencies that purport to serve them to the next level.  This would help agencies grow and mature, families reach stability and communities prosper.

If you are involved in an agency that serves the public, particularly people of low-income, what stereotypes could you question? What shift in responsibility could occur to make “clients” people again responsible for their own well-being? Our feeling is that this discussion will take “charity” to a whole new level.  We love referring people to the Family Self-Sufficiency Program at Manatee Community Action Agency for this reason – they are both helping and empowering showing that this does not have to about one or the other.

Stay tuned for our report on VITA, the Volunteer Income Tax Assitance program that SCC manages in our community.  In a similar vein, this successful Federal anti-poverty program brings cash infusions to households of low income and has some striking results.

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About Suncoast Community Capital

Suncoast Community Capital works with people of low-income to achieve financial stability in our community.
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