Thursday, May 04, 2006

Community Development 101--Part Seven

People who have been around Central Dallas Ministries for awhile tend to glass over when they hear me start in on "the three boxes." I've used this little chart so often in an attempt to summarize the work that we attempt to accomplish with our friends in the inner city.

Box Number 1 involves us in the important, beginning work of extending compassion to people who find themselves in tough circumstances that often call for immediate, emergency intervention.

Box Number 2 connects us to our neighbors as they enter longer term commitments to growth and talent development that leads to opportunity creation.

Box Number 3: Advocacy

If in the opportunity creation phase of our work, we attempt to prepare people to play "the game of Dallas" by the current rules, in this part of our efforts we find ourselves questioning the rules of the game.

Imagine with me for a moment that you are seated beside a beautiful, swiftly flowing river. As you relax and watch the water move along, you notice a person in the water struggling to swim to the side. You quickly come to the swimmer's aid, pulling him out of the water. He thanks you and walks away.

Relaxing after the excitement, you try to get back into enjoying the river and its surroundings.

Suddenly, you notice another person in the water. This time it appears that the swimmer is almost out of strength. You dive into the cold, rushing water and successfully rescue the person just in the nick of time.

Suppose you set up camp by the river and over the course of the next week you rescue over 100 struggling swimmers.

At some point I expect you would begin to question those you were pulling out of the water to determine why and how they were getting into the dangerous water in the first place.

Eventually, you and your new friends might decide to travel upstream to determine what steps could be taken to prevent others from ending up in the dangerous water.

This story illustrates our thinking and our experience on so many issues confronting low-income individuals and families.

The truth is, much of the chronic poverty we battle every day is the result of systemic malfunctions, inadequate public policy and huge gaps in funding for entire groups of men, women, youth and children.

Whether we focus on health care, education, housing, transportation, food security or wages, most of the problems facing low-income, inner city residents are created and sustained by forces and decisions beyond the contorl of the people "in the river."

One cannot account for the fact that over 47 million Americans are poor by saying that all of them are personally irresponsible, lazy or stupid.

Our experience in Dallas tells us that irresponsibility, laziness and stupidity are spread at an equal depth across the entire socio-economic continuum! No one class has a corner on the market of any of these negative, personal characteristics.

Millions are poor and remain poor because of failures in public policies.

So, at times we advocate for and with our poorer friends and neighbors to see policy change for the benefit of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

When we take this kind of action, we often see neighborhood people getting excited and more involved. We also notice that some of our supporters who live outside our poor communities get a bit concerned. Some churches get nervous. Some people believe we should leave these policy areas along.

When we work in this area, we think of Jesus and the action he took when he drove the money changers out of the Temple because they exploited the people of the land and took advantage of their need (John 2:13ff).

Community development always arrives at a place of controversy concerning public policy. When a community rises up and asserts its collective will and strength, good things have a way of happening. As social capital grows, neighborhoods change for the better.

Keeping people out of the river in the first place always beats helping them out just before they drown!


KentF said...

Thank you Larry and thank you for your reply to me about Jeffrey - the homeless man that decided to start living behind my office. It motivated me to attend a local "Un-doing Racism" task force meeting here. The ideas you note are obviously universal in application.

Anonymous said...


I disagree with the direction your advocacy efforts, but I do applaud your passion and desire.

I think rather than create policies that foster dependency we need to create policies to help people help themselves. I believe advocating for smaller government involvement is just as noble as advocating for greater federal and state assistance.

The government is inefficient, uncompassionate and unable to meet the needs of its citizens.

I guess I need to ask why does social justice have to equal big government?

KentF said...

Todd - I'm not sure if you read "big government" in Larry's post or you assumed it? What I read is Larry's comments that the current system is not working, such as this comment...."Millions are poor and remain poor because of failures in public policies.

So, at times we advocate for and with our poorer friends and neighbors to see policy change for the benefit of those at the bottom of the economic ladder."

It's easy to make over-generalizations from both sides, but I generally see you as doing that from the conservative/libertarian no or small government is always better side. I personally know of no urban ministry that is striving for folks to be government-dependant.

Larry James said...

Todd, thanks for your post.

I applaud your passion as well, even though I think your comments promote an economic and public policy mythology that is killing our cities.

a. Providing housing program funds that allow families to lease and/or purchase homes that are decent does not promote dependency, it leads to self-sufficiency and wealth creation.

b. Providing adequate health care options for individuals and families does not create dependency, it leads to better health and much, much more efficient service delivery than does the current pattern created by dependence on emergency departments.

c. As to efficiency, compare the admin costs annually for a public health insurance product like Medicare or Medicaid to private insurance companies. Talk about waste, and it is not on the govt side. Most objective studies of these costs estimate that a single-payor system would save $45 billion annually in admin costs.

d. I don't know which govt you speak of, but my experience with govt funded workers--like many of my 100 staff members here at CDM--are incredibly compassionate, efficent and effective. I can say the same thing for my two daughters who are public school teachers. Govt policy that appropriates funds to benefit poor people does not send money off into some dark cavern populated by strnage creatures whose job it is to waste funds. More and more our limited and shrinking funds come to organizations like mine.

d. Social justice doesn't have to equal big government--it has to equal fair govt. Govt does have a role in our lives--that will not go away. And it can be very positive.

e. Public funding can flow to CDM--to my community-based, faith-based organiztion, but it is being cut back every year to fund subsidies that benefit those who have no material need. Just a fact.

f. Providing adequate funding for higher education for low-income students does not result in dependency, but liberation. Was the GI Bill a good idea? Why not a new Urban Bill for kids from the hood?

Isaiah 10:1-4.

g. Public funds provided to Dallas are spent in Dallas for the benefit of Dallas. Three years ago I did a study and determined that Food Stamp dollars lost to Dallas by not being paid to families who were eligible but who did not apply amounted to over $1/4 billion annually! That is revenue lost to retail grocery stores.

What you write here, Todd is mythology.

I know I run the risk here of being criticized for being too harsh and too hard, but there comes a time to simply say, "Enough."

Anonymous said...

One cannot criticize the pointing out of fact, Larry. You speak articulately and factually about substantive matters of public policy, and I appreciate you avoiding the baseless rhetoric of the far right.

Todd speaks from an uninformed perspective in which any effort to take his income in the form of taxes is wrong, and therefore Todd and people like him have created the illusion that government programs don't work. It's creating public policy to justify personal desires rather than the community's overall best interest, and it's deplorable.

Anonymous said...

I'm responding to what I've previously read in this blog, not specifically this post.

I appreciate you speaking of me and my people as if you know me or my people.

I'm not saying that government programs do not work. I'm simply saying that there is a better way.

Yes, I think the unvoluntary taxing of individuals is wrong. That's the political mindset from which I operate. I would rather have the option of where my money went, rather than leaving it up to the government which will constantly find ways to cut back on programs that I may or may not support. If I had the option, I could support those programs I believed best served the people. I'm not greedy. I'm not selfish. I want to choose.

True social justice (which is NOT social affirmitave action) would be equal treatment of all its citizens. The social justice that seems to be advocated for on this blog would punish the wealthy for the simple fact that they are successful. That isn't justice!

Jesus Christ came to earth not to shape public policy but to shape lives. As His followers, we have the responsibility to do the same. Is justice important? Of course! But let's promote it as followers of Christ, not as lobbyists!

Larry, I'm not upset by your straightforward, unapologetic response. I hope that other readers and commenters won't be upset by mine.

Larry James said...

Todd, thanks for your post.

No, I am not upset at all by your comments and I hope others will not be either. The opportunity for open, honest, rigorous debate and discussion is what is needed, at least it seems to me.

If I have left the impression that I desire to "punish the wealthy" for being wealthy, that has not been my intention.

My hope is that those at the bottom would be afforded some measure of the same advantages as those at the top. I think that is very much a concern of justice.

Then, there are just some issues and problems that are so big that only a collective response can address them with any hope of progress. No amount of good will or choice or freedom of directing where "your" money goes can come near bringing this nation to an equitable solution on healh care or housing or public education. No voluntary program can solve the Darfur, Sudan dilemma.

The church will not be able to solve these problems or adequately address them. Play a part? Yes, most deinitely. But it takes national, collective responses to be successful with many issues. That is just a fact.

Larry James said...

DepressedCompassionate, we assist tens of thousands of people annually and we enjoy the services of hundreds of volunteers. I will check on your accusations about the person you mentioned.

While I am not disputing your claims about one of our volunteers, I removed your post because we don't use the names of people directly here when being critical. Please call me on Tuesday if you would like to talk.

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