Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Getting Things Done About National Poverty

Each year, in just the one program designed by the Internal Revenue Service, the State of Texas makes awards totaling between $40 and $45 million to developers interested in providing fit and affordable workforce housing to residents of the state. Over the course of a decade of work, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs grants funding of almost half a billion dollars for new housing construction in the state. Other states have programs like Texas.

The low income, housing tax credit program (LIHTC) may be the most effective public/private partnership going in terms of outcomes and real gains for people and for communities. Certainly the program is an example of how public policy decisions can have positive impact on the lives of citizens. This particular approach also demonstrates how government funding can be utilized by community and faith-based groups to meet community needs at a scale that will make a difference.

Lots of people believe that government has no or little role to play in meeting the needs of the urban poor. As a matter of fact, many people feel that such concerns should be left to the work of churches.

Realistically though, as I consider the needs and the funding required, it strikes me that left to their own resources and devices, and given their expressed mission and current organization, churches can seldom rise above the level of charitable work in addressing the tough issues associated with poverty. However, by working with public entities and government organizations, faith-based and community oriented non-profit groups can affect long term, systemic change at a scale that makes real impact.

I remember years ago, when I was serving a church as senior minister, I attempted to convince church leaders to purchase an apartment building for the benefit of countless individuals and families that were coming to us for housing assistance. Try as I did, I was unable to convince church leaders that my vision had enough merit to redirect church funds for this purpose. We settled for distributing more manageable amounts of funds for monthly rental and utility assistance. We could have been more efficient and effective, but I realize now that we could never have achieved the necessary scale to make a real difference in the community given our limited vision and resources.

Interestingly, I am coming to recognize that neither side of the public/private equation works very well without the other.

The best public projects appear to be those that contract with local groups to get the job done.

The best private efforts will usually involve the infusion of public dollars to achieve the necessary scale to make a real and lasting difference.

People who feel the church should do it all err in two ways. They overestimate the capacity of the church and they underestimate the scope and scale of poverty's impact and effect.

At the same time, they leave lots of funds on the table--funds that have been paid by people like me every year on April 15!

Public/private partnerships make a lot of sense.

9 comments:

KentF said...

My prayer Larry in this area is that more organizations like CDM will be directly rewarded these funds in the future as opposed to individual or shell development companies - I think this is key.

Bottom line is we need passionate developers that truly have a calling for housing the poor working on these projects - and we need to see a significant portion of the rewards going to legitimate minority-owned companies.

Matthew said...

Larry said...
People who feel the church should do it all err in two ways. They overestimate the capacity of the church and they underestimate the scope and scale of poverty's impact and effect.

At the same time, they leave lots of funds on the table--funds that have been paid by people like me every year on April 15!


I think the libertarians (they're not all crazy) would say that you should take those funds off the government table and give them back to the people to put into their churches, rather than having some constitutionally questionable "faith based program" initiative.

Of course, "alleviating poverty" isn't a libertarian goal, and currently, parachurch organizations seem to care a lot more about poverty than your average suburban church. It seems the root problem isn't funding, but getting people to give a rip.

Larry James said...

Thanks for the comments.

Collective/community will is an interesting phenomenon. If driven by a clear vision of what is needed/required in the larger social context, some over-arching institution has to be aware and involved. Resources can then be passed down to groups and organizations that are prepared to respond with sophistication and detail at the local level (i.e. those who do "give a rip").

Those locked in poverty don't have time to wait on groups who don't take advantage of the larger vision or who don't see the conneciton between faith and justice or, from a secular perspective, the connection between truly human behavior and creative responses to poverty's pain.

Daniel Gray said...

Amen, Larry...

Good points about us understanding the scope of the issues. I think we forget how much the government powers us to do. Government has its own services, but essentially tells the people "There's only so much we know how to do. We're giving the rest of the money to you to tailor needs to your community." Federal grants alone total over $400 billion (not to mention credits and other subsidies) -- I forget the private sector totals, but they don't come close.

I find a lot of people who are oblivious to the uses of government money. I'll tell them to go ask any nonprofit organization where their funding streams come from. Chances are, a sizeable portion comes from the government.

I think a lot of Christians are afraid of the idea of the church not being capable of doing something. It strikes against the notion of God's power for some. But I think we have to understand and support God's use of the government as a force in affecting social justice. Christians must learn how to partner with the government and harness its resources rather than avoiding and antagonizing it.

Larry James said...

Well said, Daniel. Very well said.

Matthew said...

Larry said...
in the larger social context, some over-arching institution has to be aware and involved. Resources can then be passed down to groups and organizations that are prepared to respond

This is all well and good, until I start thinking about where those "resources" come from. One reason government funding works so well is because the government can force people to pay their taxes, and then redirect those funds to nonprofits and other programs that the individiual taxpayer might not be willing to fund in the absence of a threat of force.

The issue of force isn't such a big deal to me, but it seems like, as Christians, we should also be interested in getting other Christians to see the value in these programs, so that they are guaranteed support even if the government cuts back on its spending. In other words: I agree that those locked in poverty don't have time to wait on groups that don't care about them, but in the long term, I think we need to spend significant resources on convincing Christians that they have an obligation to care.

(Sorry to necro-post, but i find it difficult to have a meaningful blog-conversation within 24 hours.)

Justin said...

I like this Matthew guy. ;)

Larry, I do think that public/private funding is a fairly good thing. It does bring about problems because of church/state issues. Didn't George Bush try to do some stuff with the faith based programs and the democrats lamblasted him on it?

The libertarians do, btw, have an idea for this. Its not just about giving the money back to the people, but giving dollar for dollar tax credits for those who donate to faith based poverty relief organizations.

The thing is, it is so vastly important to have people on the ground where the funds are being spent. To be there for those that are spending the money and to help make sure the people that need it are the ones that are getting it. (Look at the Katrina mess and how billions were wasted down there)

Anyway, good post.

Chris Munn said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Chris Munn said...

So my colleague DG has perked my interest on this topic...

Here is an article to assist the conversation:

http://charitychannel.com/publish/templates/?a=10639&z=16
(on Charity Channel website homepage)

Chrisitan people have been involved with the government's money for a long time. I think that "the church" realized that Christianity can escape the churches and influence the world.

The Faith-based and Community Initiative office of the White House was created to encourage faith based insititutions to pursue government funding. One of the criticisms of this process is that churches and faith based organizations have traditionally been irresponsible with accounting for their funding. Another issue is that faith based organizations have not taken hold of the opportunity that the government is giving them. In one of the federal departments approixmately $50 million of earmarked faith based funding went unspent last year. The church must take advantae of this opportunity while it lasts. Just a thought...

Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Chris