Want to Know How to Best Help Poor People? Just Ask.

Grasping hands to hold on to.

Early this month, Tianna Gaines-Turner testified before Paul Ryan’s House Budget Committee during a hearing labeled as a “Progress Report on the War on Poverty.” Gaines-Turner’s testimony was smart, incredibly compelling, and included solid recommendations on fixing problems with our country’s social safety net. Like her counterparts testifying that day and during previous hearings on the topic, Gaines-Turner is an advocate for low-income people and disadvantaged communities. But unlike her counterparts, she’s lived it. Gaines-Turner lives and works in a low-income neighborhood, has experienced poverty, and currently, along with her husband, supports her three children on a low-wage job.

Her full testimony is well worth a read or a listen.  She dispels myths that poor people are dependent, lazy, or are enjoying a comfortable life living off the system and don’t know what’s best for them. She emotionally describes the “constant climb” of living paycheck to paycheck while emphasizing how critical benefits such as food stamps are to keeping her family afloat. In her written testimony, she concludes strongly: Nothing about us without us.“Congress should not make any decisions about programs meant to help families living in poverty without people who know poverty first hand at the decision-making table.”

In an increasingly complex world, grassroots initiatives to help the poor have dwindled.  As community organizing work is often overrun by outside political interest groups and mobilizing people living in poverty is fraught with challenges, few opportunities exist for people in need to tell their stories and actively participate to improve the quality of life for their communities.  Integrating low-income people who utilize social services into the management operations of human service organizations, or on local and state advisory councils as Gaines-Turner suggests, offer these opportunities.

Social service nonprofit board rooms and management meetings are often full of MPAs, data analyst, corporate bigwigs, and social work managers, toiling to make decisions about programming and funding for critical social services. Notably absent are those who receive the services themselves. While some agencies include consumers in regular decision making, most do not, and it’s a detriment to providers and clients alike.

Aside from annual consumer surveys and occasional request for testimonials when budget concerns arise, consumers are often left out of the planning process. The use of this information to drive decision making varies greatly from agency to agency.  Some organizations may have ad hoc “advisory” groups or other intentionally separate committees which includes consumers. However this separation devalues their essential role and expertise.  Who better knows the needs of the community and barriers to accessing help than those receiving services?  Better integration of clients into agency governance, via direct representation on boards or consulting on regular management decisions, increases accountability and offers an often absent real world perspective on the challenges of making ends meet. And as Gaines-Turner explains, people who live in poverty, forced to do so much with so little, are often skilled problem solvers.

Providers will often cite concerns around confidentiality, a lack of resources, or logistical challenges as barriers—these can all be overcome if the value of client participation is fully recognized and the importance of their input is not overlooked. Change at any organization can be slow; however progress can be helped along when the implementation of initiatives like this are attached to the provider’s purse strings. Funders could be a catalyst for efforts to better integrate consumers into planning activities at social service nonprofits by making it a requirement to receive funds.

Programs such as Head Start have long recognized the value of including parents of Head Start children in governance. Federal requirements mandate their participation, including in the screening of potential employees through participation in interviews and in the selection of program curricula. Resources are provided to assist families to overcoming barriers to participating, such as providing transportation assistance and childcare. This is critical, as is compensating people for their time and effort.

Other organizations should take a cue from these endeavors, and funders could benefit from borrowing from these policies when establishing requirements for grantees. Let’s take a cue from these “expert stakeholders” who can offer innovative solutions to shape social service policy and practice.

Rose Frech, Community SolutionsAbout the Author: Rose Frech, Fellow, The Center for Community Solutions