In the Long War on Poverty, Small Victories That Matter

1/8/14
 
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By DAVID BORNSTEIN,

from The New York Times,
1/8/14:

It was 50 years ago that President Lyndon B. Johnson started the “war on poverty,” railing against the “lack of jobs, bad housing [and] poor schools” that perpetuated an array of social crises, struggle and suffering amid a sea of plenty. Given the state of poverty today, it’s tempting to believe that the effort was a failure, and that perhaps we may never prevail against these ills. But in many ways, we have become far more thoughtful and systematic in our efforts to address social problems. It’s often hard to see these improvements.

Here are three ways we may be getting smarter:

1. Getting real about what works and what does not. One of the most important trends among effective organizations is the rigor with which they’re examining their own impact. This is a heartening change.

I found numerous examples of organizations doing this well. Here are two:

Playworks. When researchers from Mathematica Policy Research and Stanford University examined the program (pdf), they found something that many educators overlook: children’s emotional and physical well being is intimately connected with their cognitive development. When kids have a good time playing with other kids at recess, it has a positive impact on the rest of their school day. Teachers in schools with Playworks reported 43 percent less bullying.

Blue Engine, which works to increase college readiness through a team-teaching model in high school classrooms, … devise[d] an algorithm (pdf) to estimate how students would have performed on New York State Regent exams without its help. Not only did the analysis reveal that the program increased the number of students scoring at “college ready” levels on the Regents exams by 61 percent, but as with Playworks, it showed where the model was faring best and where it was faring worst.

2. Paying for success (and prevention). In December, New York State launched a $13.5 million social impact bond, financed by private and institutional investors, to pay for training and employment services for 2,000 previously incarcerated individuals. The deal is that investors get repaid, and earn returns, only if the program achieves specified reductions in recidivism or gains in employment. President Obama requested $300 million in the 2014 Budget for an Incentive Fund to help state and local governments implement pay for success projects.

3. Getting change into the water supply. The social sector has been described as a cottage industry — with lots of small nonprofit organizations, but relatively few that achieve major scale. Rare, an organization that pioneered an effective and replicable methodology for organizing “Pride Campaigns” to galvanize community conservation efforts, announced that it was merging with the nation’s largest conservation organization: the Nature Conservancy. Youth Villages, one of the nation’s leading organizations providing assistance to youths and families involved in the foster care system, will work alongside the state of Tennessee to provide transitional living assistance for every 18-year-old who ages out of the state’s foster care system and needs this kind of help

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