Up From Misery

Welfare reform might just work  if the government pays attention to the new strategies being developed on a community level.

By Joan Walsh
Published December 11, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

theres a revival going on. America's inner cities, written off as wastelands of underclass pathologies impervious to government programs, are quietly turning around. In poor neighborhoods from the South Bronx to East Oakland, black teenage births, infant mortality, violent crime and school dropout rates are down significantly. A social rebirth of sorts is evident.

No one can say for sure what accounts for these changes. Both President Clinton and Republican governors have rushed to take credit for a recent decline in inner city welfare rolls. But the real changes seem to be coming more from within than without. Discredited decades-old government anti-poverty programs are being replaced with a community-building approach that emphasizes relationships -- linking young people with adult mentors, giving pregnant women peer support, focusing on fathers, not just mothers and children. The payoff: better school performance, improved infant and child health and less urban violence.

As Democrats and Republicans move to make welfare reform a reality, such efforts offer lessons that go far beyond the notion that only dramatic welfare cuts and work requirements can improve inner-city life.

The new wave of community builders believe that poverty is aggravated because the inner-city poor lack the network of relationships and institutions -- church groups, ethnic and immigrant associations, extended families, small businesses -- that helped earlier generations of low-income Americans move into the mainstream. Accordingly, community-building initiatives seek to strengthen such relationships and institutions, especially those that promote self-help and social support, rather than simply providing services to needy individuals.

There's evidence this approach is beginning to work:

  • In Savannah, Ga., business, government and community leaders used public funds in the city's poorest neighborhoods to pair young mothers with older women mentors. Parents who faced losing their children to foster care were matched with experienced peers, who gave support and advice. In the last few years, black infant mortality has dropped 45 percent, foster-care placements declined 25 percent and teen pregnancy fell 12 percent; serious juvenile violence decreased, too.

  • In Baltimore, city agencies, nonprofit groups, churches and residents have teamed in the rundown Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, going door-to-door to get pregnant women to prenatal care, their children into preschool and unemployed fathers into jobs. In three years, the neighborhood's violent crime and infant mortality rates are down an estimated 20 percent, school attendance is up and almost 800 residents have found jobs, a significant number in a neighborhood of 10,000.

  • In the South Bronx, community development corporations (CDCs) have built 22,000 housing units in a neighborhood once synonymous with urban blight. Now five CDCs have joined together to build community, not just housing, by providing child care, health clinics, men's groups, Little League teams and a new employment service that does everything from resumi writing to conflict resolution.

  • In Oakland, black infant mortality is down 50 percent, thanks to a web of social supports that keep pregnant women healthy and away from drugs. Now, public-agency leaders are pairing with non-profit groups to create more self-help and social support networks in high-poverty neighborhoods.

Nationwide, researchers have counted more than 50 community-building initiatives. There's no way to count the thousands of health and welfare administrators, ministers, YMCA directors, business leaders and community activists whose work has been transformed by the new approach. It's still an art, not a science. But research supports a key insight: Relationships are key to turning lives around.

The results have enormous implications for Clinton's welfare goals. A policy that merely cuts benefits and pushes mothers into the crowded low-wage labor market is not enough. Focusing on community building could ensure that new jobs programs, where needed, aren't make-work nonsense, which neither build community nor teach work skills. Under a community building approach job-creation might first target the child-care and family-support needs of women entering the labor market.

Welfare reform anchored in community building could complete the renewal of inner-city neighborhoods that appears underway. But welfare cuts that drive poor mothers into the low-wage job market, leaving their children without adequate care, will swamp these islands of urban renewal in a new tidal wave of misery.

Quote of the day

Don't cry for us

"What do Americans care about substance? The look is more important. Fashion becomes the idea, and that's what is sold."

-- Oliver Stone, a co-writer of the movie "Evita," on the current fashion rage inspired by the pro-fascist prostitute, Eva Peron. (From "101 Evitas," in Wednesday's Frank Rich column in the New York Times.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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