Grassroots Work Is Key to Upward Mobility, Not Policy Papers

Donors should know that any “answer” to poverty that takes the form of a paper or policy summit—even with the occasional overcoming-poverty anecdote thrown in for inspiration—is at best several degrees removed from making life better for the poor.

How does someone go from being homeless youth with a troubled family to a licensed commercial pilot at the age of 23? For Kamia, it started with a single helicopter ride. “That helicopter ride introduced me to a new perspective on both Denver and my life,” she says.

Until that point, my experience of Denver was only of decrepit inner-city areas. … I was awestruck with how beautiful everything looked from the air. I thought that if I could always see from that perspective, I could do anything. I wanted to see myself through that lens all the time. My problems on the ground seemed so small. From that moment on, I wanted to fly and determined I would become a pilot.

Kamia’s story is one of countless unique journeys that I have been privileged to observe, first as the daughter of an immigrant, then a minister’s wife, and now helping to run operations for the Woodson Center, a national nonprofit devoted to upward mobility. The journey often begins when a key relationship, a newspaper article, or a helicopter ride ignites a sense of excitement over what is possible and a determination to pursue a dream. But too few people concerned about poverty issues—including donors—pay enough attention the central role of aspiration, determination, and resilience, focusing instead on time-consuming and expensive adjustments to public policy.

The Limitations of Public Policy

I heard a think-tank leader lament recently that policy nudges (and associated impersonal messaging such as posters in welfare offices) are essentially the only tools available to combat poverty, and thus all that can be done is to make the best use of them possible. What social problems need are well-researched “carrots and sticks” that can be implemented at scale and are based on clear data, say the professionals with a national mandate who get paid to conduct research and talk about data. But while minimizing perverse incentives may sometimes smooth out the road from poverty to prosperity—a noble goal to be sure—it is not the fuel nor the engine that propels the Kamias of this world forward.

Conservatives too often forget that efforts to use policy to manipulate the decisions of lower-income people are vulnerable to the same knowledge problem as any other kind of top-down planning. Take, for example, the issue of truancy. Not long ago, the Woodson Center purchased a washing machine and dryer for one of our grassroots leaders, Angie. Formerly incarcerated herself, Angie has been able to reach deeply troubled youth and help them turn their lives around. She needed the appliances to wash basketball uniforms and school clothes for the nearly 100 young people who participate in her basketball-focused anti-violence program. We knew from four decades of experience that children being bullied for wearing dirty clothes to school is a major cause of truancy. So is poorly controlled asthma, making rescue inhalers a helpful intervention when students come from neighborhoods with a lot of asthma triggers.

But because so many large-dollar donors are obsessed with federal policy (“maximize the impact of your giving by fixing the entire country at once!”), interventions like these get little to no attention. Washing machines or rescue inhalers may be dramatically effective in certain situations, but if one or the other cannot effectively address truancy nationwide, the intervention is dismissed as not “scalable.”

The Brookings Institution’s 2017 report Chronic Absenteeism: An Old Problem in Search of New Answers offers a typical policy-centric approach to the problem of truancy, and—probably unintentionally—exposes its severe limitations. It starts by defining the problem in easily measurable terms (not going to school!), explaining its consequences (bad!) and offering a demographic breakdown of children who are most likely to be chronically absent (poor! black! brown!). Then the authors tackle the daunting task of analyzing every possible cause of problematic school absence in a country of 350 million people, dividing them into four major buckets: student-specific, family-specific, school-specific, and community-specific. Glancing at their table, kids who need washing machines might fall into the student-specific bucket (“bullying”) and those who need rescue inhalers into family-specific (“stressful family events,” since health challenges were not listed), although you could probably make a case for the reverse.

The authors then ask, “What do we know about reducing chronic absenteeism?,” and their answer is, not much. Interventions happen, but they are so varied, and while some were found to be effective, the authors lament that “for the most part, these interventions studied were small, locally developed programs, so it is not known whether these approaches can be replicated at scale.” They end hopefully, though, noting that “recent evidence suggests that ‘No Pass, No Drive’ laws—which make obtaining (or keeping) a driver’s license conditional on school performance—reduce chronic absenteeism among high school students.”

Think for a minute about telling a student who is absent from school either because of shame over smelly clothes or repeated ER visits from asthma attacks that if he doesn’t get his act together, he will not be allowed to get his driver’s license. We don’t need another paper analyzing the problem from 30,000 feet. We need to identify and resource the thousands of Angies who can tell us whether a particular school, neighborhood, or student needs a washing machine, rescue inhalers, or something else entirely.

Often Necessary, Never Sufficient

It is a little ironic that people whose revered founding documents exalt the God-given right to pursue happiness would develop a theory of upward mobility based on divining optimal policy language from the entrails of census data. The Woodson Center has found that good policy is often necessary, but never sufficient to spur upward mobility in individuals and communities. When Kimi Gray sent over 600 kids to college from a single public housing complex, the policy change that enabled her and other residents to take over management of their building was an important part of the story. But that same policy without the capacity-building of neighborhood leaders did not have the same transformative effect elsewhere.

Before, during, or after a positive policy change has been made, the local people who—like Kamia, Angie, and Kimi—possess the drive to make things better for themselves and their neighbors must be identified and empowered to pursue their dreams of a better future. Their successes then have a multiplicative effect by igniting the drive to succeed in others facing similar circumstances. But by framing “good” policy as the engine of progress, rather than its welcome accompaniment, conservative policy-crafters lead donors to believe that funding the next truancy white paper will actually improve outcomes of currently absent students in their lifetimes. Even if one sees conservative policies as ends in themselves—rather than means to improving the lives of those subjected to those policies—consider the possibility that people actively pursuing dreams that they believe are possible will be more likely to embrace policies that, for example, emphasize or assume personal responsibility.

Donors should know that any “answer” to poverty that takes the form of a policy paper or conference—even with the occasional overcoming-poverty anecdote thrown in for inspiration—is at best several degrees removed from making life better for the poor. Policymakers may not have any influence over the aspirations and dreams of people in struggling communities, but that doesn’t mean no one does. Donors who place a premium on those dreams and that influence—with some due diligence and the right partners—will find that their giving can spur upward mobility in ways they never thought possible.

This article originally appeared in the Giving Review on September 18, 2023.

Julia Nelson

Julia Nelson is the chief operating officer of the Woodson Center in Washington, DC.
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