Management & Labor

Fighting Poverty from the Front Porch

There are two significant things to say right off the bat about Florida's new statewide anti-poverty program.
by | January 2000

There are two significant things to say right off the bat about Florida's new statewide anti-poverty program. One is that it is microscopically small--$5.2 million out of a budget of more than $30 billion in a huge state with enclaves of poor people almost anywhere you look.

The other is that the program exists. That alone makes it worth writing about. As you may have noticed, governors don't win election these days on the strength of plans to wage a war against poverty. They talk about education and the need to improve inner-city schools by giving parents more choice. They talk about ending welfare dependence and establishing the right mix of incentives to get the hard-core unemployed working again.

But very few of them discuss poverty per se. That particular word has been largely absent from gubernatorial rhetoric since the early 1970s, when as Ronald Reagan later summed it up, "the federal government fought a war on poverty, and poverty won."

Jeb Bush knows all this. Nevertheless, he seems to want to challenge the conventional wisdom. He has been talking about poverty ever since the start of his Republican campaign for governor of Florida in 1998, when he vowed to create a brand-new Office of Urban Opportunity aimed at lifting the prospects of inner-city residents in every metropolitan area from Pensacola to Miami.

No doubt some of the urban liberals who crossed party lines to vote for Bush--and some of the conservatives who began wondering about him- -thought he had something fairly expensive in mind. If so, they were wrong. It is strictly a low-budget effort. Still, you have to admit that the governor has followed through on at least the outlines of his promise. There is now an Office of Urban Opportunity. There are three demonstration neighborhoods, in West Palm Beach, Pensacola and St. Petersburg. All of them are majority-black. Bush visited all of them for the launching of the program in October, promising that he would be back on a regular basis, talking to poor people in their homes and "asking them what their dreams are."

Is this a public-relations gimmick? Well, in part, sure. You can't fulfill too many people's dreams on $5.2 million a year in a state the size of Florida. On the other hand, the Bush administration has been pretty convincing in its arguments that the small scale of the program doesn't really reflect tokenism. It reflects an honest belief that the government's most important role in fighting poverty is to serve as catalyst for efforts communities are already making on their own.

Bush and his administration seem to be struggling for a metaphor that might offer a clear picture of what they are trying to do. Sometimes they say they are creating a switchboard--a network of contacts and practical advice that local activists can dial into anytime they need help. But most of the time they refer, a little cryptically, to front porches.

The whole program, in fact, is called "Front Porch Florida." Bush loves to use the phrase. A few weeks ago, when he announced the first three demonstration sites, the governor proclaimed himself "very pleased to give these communities a new front porch to build on." If you hadn't heard or read about him speaking this way before, you'd have come away wondering what in the world he was talking about.

In fact, he appears to mean something like this: In the old days (before air conditioning lured Floridians indoors), front porches were the center of community social life and mutual assistance, a physical symbol of grassroots involvement in local affairs. Neighbors sat there and rocked, ate, smoked and drank together, and thought through the issues that needed to be resolved for the common good. What's needed now, the argument goes, is a 21st-century equivalent of the front porch--a mechanism for bringing people out of their air-conditioned cocoons so they can regroup and devote their energies to the common good.

It's more than a little fanciful. No doubt quite a few valuable civic projects have been conceived on front porches over the years, but a lot of really stupid ones have as well, including some that constituted felonies. Still, there's a fundamental coherence to the argument. Before people can make decisions about the future of their communities, they need to reconnect with each other.

"Relationships are the key to improving the quality of life in our inner cities," says Patrick Hadley, the Office of Urban Opportunity director. "Not interagency relationships driven by government, but interpersonal relationships driven by urban core residents, neighbor to neighbor."

Whether the state of Florida can nurture those kinds of relationships is very much open to question. But in framing his poverty program as an exercise in community action, Jeb Bush is buying into a theory that stretches back far beyond the Great Society of the 1960s, to the days when Saul Alinsky was organizing the blue-collar neighborhoods around the Chicago stockyards to fight against their squalid condition.

Alinsky preached that neighborhoods had to stop waiting for handouts from above and start taking the future into their own hands. It was largely his writings on grassroots activism that led to the "maximum feasible participation" requirement in the urban poverty programs of the Lyndon Johnson period. That rule turned out to be a disaster in practice, but the ideal of poor neighborhoods orchestrating their own renewal has remained very much alive in the decades since, both among public policy scholars and among left-leaning Democrats who felt that the grassroots model had never been given an adequate test.

It's a bit of a stretch to call Jeb Bush a modern-day Alinskyite. If I were the Republican governor of Florida, I don't think that's a label I would want to wear on my lapel at the next party convention. But it's hard to escape the irony that at a time when old-style community-action rhetoric has largely disappeared from American politics, one of the few places you can go to hear it is Tallahassee. In using phrases like "resident-driven revitalization" and "community- based reform," Bush is resurrecting the common-sense idea that it's fruitless to wage any battle against poverty without consulting the people in whose interest the battle is being waged.

Of course, there's one fundamental difference. Saul Alinsky, and the Great Society community-action theorists, wanted to organize poor people to confront the political establishment and demand a greater share of societal wealth. Front Porch Florida is nothing like that. Its community-action agenda is really a local self-help agenda. The goal is to bring poor neighborhoods together to confront their own internal weaknesses--delinquency, drug addiction, teen pregnancy and welfare dependence.

Nothing emphasizes this distinction more than Bush's choice of Hadley to be the first director of the Office of Urban Opportunity. A one- time peanut salesman in Ocala, in the northern part of the state, Hadley comes out of a national organization called MAD DADS--Men Against Destruction, Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorder. MAD DADS is based in Omaha, but Hadley ran the Florida operation, and turned it into the group's fastest-growing unit anywhere in the country.

MAD DADS isn't a political pressure group: It's a male volunteer and self-esteem organization. Its members pick up trash and plant flowers, find jobs for teenagers, run street patrols to help local police, and harass drug dealers to get out of town. It is not an outpost of social permissiveness.

"We're here to tell you this:" Hadley proclaimed a few years ago: "There is a right way and a wrong way to do things." Once a movement is launched on the right moral path, he believes, it can make rapid progress without large-scale infusions of public money. He accomplished that in his hometown; he is reasonably sure he can accomplish it at the state level as well.

Some people will insist the problem with Front Porch Florida isn't that it is underfunded, or that it is being oversold, but that it is pursuing a lost cause. In the past few years, an increasing number of urban policy specialists have argued that, bluntly put, the inner city simply can't solve its problems from within.

They look at all the disappointing policy initiatives of the past three decades--community development corporations, community development block grants, enterprise zones, empowerment zones--and conclude that the only way to break up areas of concentrated poverty is essentially to evacuate them--disperse the residents among the affluent suburbs that surround every American city. Nicholas Lemann made this point in "The Promised Land," his justly acclaimed 1991 book about Chicago; David Rusk made it in an even more forceful way this year in his book "Inside Game, Outside Game."

But until the suburbs decide to throw their arms open to massive infusions of low-income housing--which will not happen in our lifetimes--any anti-poverty strategy based on dispersal is nothing more than academic fantasy. No elected government will implement it.

So while community action and self-help may sound like a slightly shopworn strategy, with a well-documented history of failure, they are also the only strategy the inner city is likely to have available anytime soon. Patrick Hadley is convinced that they can work in Florida with decent leadership. Spending $5 million a year to find out is a bargain if there ever was one.

Alan Ehrenhalt
Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Contributing Editor
aehrenhalt@governing.com  | 

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Management & Labor