Center for Community Futures
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CHAPTER 1: THE CASE FOR CHANGE

Changing Our Overall Thinking About and Approaches to Addressing Poverty

      As America continually strives to form that ‘more perfect union’ envisioned by our founding fathers, one of the key factors we have always struggled with as a society is how to care for those in greatest need. For purposes of our work here, we focus on the segment of our society that exists within the condition we define as poverty.

Every generation or so, our society recalibrates its thinking about and approaches for addressing poverty. It is time again for us to change the way we think about and address poverty because:

bulletWe know that as the number of people living in poverty increases, it becomes more and more difficult for any society to sustain itself. None of us wants that for our great nation. As long as many of our citizenry remain under-optimized, our society can never reach its full potential.  
bulletThe most recent major recalibration was initiated 40 years ago via the 1964 “War on Poverty.” President Lyndon Johnson believed that by turning the power of the federal government loose on the issue, we could eliminate poverty.  
bulletWhile there is much progress to celebrate, we clearly have fallen woefully short of the lofty objective of ameliorating poverty. As a result of the “War on Poverty,” scores of programs were created, the U.S. Poverty Index was established, unprecedented public spending was dedicated to the objective, and a massive ‘helping’ industry was created. Though there have been impressive gains in many important indicators of societal well-being, we have not shifted in our approaches as quickly as the conditions have.  
bulletThe U.S. Poverty Index, developed in the 1960’s and based on an income/food consumption model, is no longer representative of the conditions of poverty (e.g., cost of living, basic income needs, economic trends, technological advancements, family structure and roles, workforce trends, etc.). As the economic, social, technological and societal conditions change the nature of poverty, we must also change the way our society thinks about it and addresses it in order to remain economically, socially, and morally sustainable as a society.  
bulletWe are still using the income/consumption model and the basic formula as designed in the 1960’s under vastly different circumstances. Proposed reforms to the Poverty Index over the last three decades to add other cost elements such as housing and health care and to add other income sources such as the cash value of benefits have not been successful, resulting in the continued use of a formula that has outlived its efficacy as an accurate definition of the conditions of poverty.  
bulletWe currently spend hundreds of billions of dollars annually on assisting those in greatest need in America without an acceptable return on investment. Unfortunately, since there is no shared vision guiding and leveraging our investments toward a common objective, our spending is ad hoc in categorical programs—each with their own rules, regulations, and objectives—and often works at cross purposes with other programs and initiatives. Individual private initiatives often suffer from not having enough resources to be truly effective. In the aggregate, our fragmented and categorical approach results in the old adage; ‘If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.’  
bulletThe issue of poverty is best addressed at the community level. Under the current construct poverty programs are prescribed at the Federal level. This framework fails to fully engage and empower communities to develop their own vision for the future and the strategies they need to get there. The uniqueness of America’s communities demands a service strategy unique to each community’s objectives, resources, and obstacles.  
bulletOften the goals and objectives of the various ‘helping programs’ work at cross purposes so that a comprehensive network of effective services and support cannot be realized. This approach is another example of not leveraging the resources that are currently being expended on the issue and does not give us a return on our investment.  
bulletThe current framework does not maximize the use of technology that would provide for infinitely more efficient and effective delivery of services and/or to reduce the need for the services in the first place. The current categorical construct requires separate technological infrastructures for each of the programs, which means that precious resources are required to fund the separate infrastructures instead of going directly to the individuals or families needing assistance. Helpers in the different program structures have difficulty sharing vital information that could be used to help serve individuals and families more effectively. Furthermore, technology could be leveraged to allow many decisions to be placed directly in the hands of the individual or family, thus obviating the need for intermediaries.  
bulletThe current helping system is financed principally by government and philanthropy, despite the widely-used economic construct of market solutions in most other advancement endeavors. Recognizing that every sector has a role in addressing poverty and that market solutions are encouraged in most facets of American problem-solving, we must acknowledge that market-based strategies are significantly underutilized in America’s helping system.

      All of the above leave America with less than the most effective helping system. As the economic, social, technological—societal conditions change the nature of poverty, we must also change the way our society thinks about it and addresses it in order to remain economically, socially, and morally sustainable as a society.

  We need to create urgency in society to do the work of this recalibration such that our society views eliminating poverty as:

bulletAn exercise in developing self-sustaining conditions at the individual, family, community, and societal levels;
bulletA win-win exchange between society and individuals, individuals and institutions; and
bulletA way to create the harmonious conditions that support a healthy, non-violent, economically strong and innovative society.

Looking at the Need for Change in Four Key Areas

  Four overarching areas of research were identified to begin to better understand the issues and determinants of success related to alleviating poverty. These include:

bulletGeneral nature of poverty issues and definitions/measures of poverty;
bulletFamily economic security issues and related policies;
bulletCommunity based strategies and models; and
bulletTechnology based efforts to reduce poverty.

  Key findings from the research in each area are outlined below.  

Redefining Poverty

      There is no federal policy, per se, on reducing poverty in the United States. The last and perhaps only time the U.S. had a vision of reducing poverty and an explicit commitment to it was during the Great Society Years. During the War on Poverty, there were multiple programs created but little in the way of a coordinated strategy that had poverty reduction as a goal. For the past 42 years, since the 1962 AFDC-U amendments, the numerous efforts at ‘welfare reform’ have been more about reducing the numbers on welfare rolls than reducing poverty. Multiple programs exist that have reducing poverty as part of their mission but the measures are about program specific outcomes rather than overall poverty reduction.

Limited Understanding of the Causes of Poverty

There is no agreement about which of the causes of poverty are the normal consequences of the operation of an economy or of defects in the economy, a function of the social values as they exist at any point in time, or the result of individual action or inaction. Because we have not unraveled and identified all the factors that cause poverty, most legislation does not have clear cut strategies to eliminate or change those causes.

Social mobility is still poorly understood and under-researched. Policy is based largely on a static snapshot of society rather then a dynamic motion picture of how America works. But the income and/or wealth of individuals and families does not necessarily remain constant over time. For example, people may be poor during their younger years, have adequate income in the middle years, and be poor again or perhaps well off in their senior years. Why do some people move quickly in and out of poverty? Why do others fall into poverty and remain there? And how do some groups and individuals avoid poverty altogether? There is much more volatility of movement among the general population than is recognized and factored into public policy.

      Programs are focused on specific needs emanating from legislative action – usually representing a compromise of conflicting viewpoints. These compromises are based on assumptions about aggregate needs, but they do not relate to the totality of any one individual’s needs. Program eligibility is typically tied to some form of income test – generally, although not exclusively, related to the poverty guidelines. Program income tests fail to either account for most of the reasons why people are in poverty or to identify the pathways out of poverty.  

Limitations of the Current Definition of Poverty

Federal poverty definitions have two main purposes: to provide a statistical analysis of the population, and to serve as a test for eligibility determination for specific programs.  However, there is no national rule that requires the poverty thresholds be used across the board for program eligibility purposes. Eligibility criteria are typically defined in each piece of authorizing legislation.

The current poverty thresholds are rooted in a 1965 study using minimum food consumption budgets, which at that time were assumed to be one third of a family’s income needs. While levels have increased to reflect cost of living increases, the basic assumptions have not changed since 1965. Poverty computations essentially only count cash income and a few assets, and vary by family size. The poverty thresholds are typically absolutes when considering program eligibility. An individual is either eligible or they are not – there is no middle ground.

The current definition of poverty excludes other relevant social factors that help people stay out of poverty, that help people get out of poverty, or that keep people in poverty It is a consumption-based versus a strength based or a social based approach to defining poverty.

The current poverty definition is obsolete because:

bulletLife in the United States has changed dramatically since 1965 – many factors such as childcare, healthcare, housing and transportation are a much larger part of minimal living standards than they were in 1965;
bulletFood consumption today is only 14% of a typical family budget, less than half the 33% assumed in 1965;
bulletNo regional variations exist for the poverty index as they do for other measures of low-income used in some programs (e.g., Lower Living Income Standard Levels); and
bulletIn-kind, benefits or other off-sets are not included in income.

      There is a difference between situational poverty (short duration) and generational (long term often lifetime duration) poverty. Some estimates are that as many as 50% of U.S. citizens will experience situational poverty sometime during their lives. Support systems and networks exist for most of those in situational poverty such that they access government services far less or not at all. The family and other social networks are a stronger part of their support mechanisms.

  Poverty rates across different countries are difficult to compare primarily because “costs of existence” vary so much, e.g., at least 2 billion of the 4.8 billion people living in developing countries exist on the equivalent of $2 or less (in U.S. dollars) a day. Recent international definitions of poverty (the UN Human Poverty Index) factor in illiteracy, malnutrition among children, early death, poor health care and poor access to safe water as poverty indicators. They use a much wider array of elements in their definitions, but not all of them are applicable to developed societies like the United States.

Efforts to Change the Existing Definition

The literature review that was conducted as part of this initiative as well as the collective view of the participants as observed during the discussion sessions suggest strongly that the existing U.S. Poverty Index—based on a 40-year old consumption/income model—is not representative of the real conditions of poverty and is therefore incomplete. Attempts to change the dollar-based poverty definition have not moved beyond research, academia, and rhetoric. There are many reasons for this inertia. There are always winners and losers in a definitional change:

bulletIt can change the official record of the total number of people who are in poverty;
bulletIt can make more people eligible for assistance and therefore put upward pressure
bulletIt could make fewer people eligible for assistance and therefore put downward pressure on budgets;
bulletIt could disqualify some who now receive substantial in-kind support, e.g., food stamps and Earned Income Tax Credits; and/or
bulletIt could lead to the reallocation of funds among states and local service providers.

  In the 1960’s, antipoverty workers liked the “poverty line” for several reasons:

bulletIt was easy to understand and apply;
bulletIt could be used to ‘prove’ to skeptics who claimed there was no poverty in their community, that poverty existed in their area; and
bulletIt was an easy target to reach. For example, if you helped Dad get a GED and get a job in the factory at the minimum wage then that family moved above the poverty line.

      In the 1970’s, there were many initiatives to better integrate services in the hopes that by better linking services (inputs), family outcomes would improve. In the 1980’s, the emphasis shifted to public charity roles that provided a “safety net” of basics (food and income). These, too, were based on consumption and family “needs.”

      There were numerous efforts to change the poverty index in the 1980’s and 1990’s – to add both cost elements such as housing and health care and other income sources such as the cash value of benefits. None of these efforts at large-scale reform were successful and so that even today, we are still using the income/consumption model and the basic formula designed in the 1960’s.

Creating New Definitions

A number of reasons exist for creating new definitions of poverty:

bulletChanging definitions can impact society’s views and actions toward those in poverty. Current definitions have two main uses – measuring the number of people in poverty and determining program eligibility. Virtually all major efforts to change the definition have failed. Shifting the paradigm can give society new views on what constitutes poverty and what causes it.  
bulletNew definitions can help shape a shared vision of addressing poverty in new ways. Exploring new definitions invigorates the debate on how to prevent or reduce poverty. Looking at poverty in new ways gives society opportunities to impact it.  
bulletNew definitions can help foster greater system interdependence. Looking at poverty from the individual, family and community perspectives calls for responses that are person-focused rather than program driven. Building on an individual’s strengths calls for systems to work together.  
bulletNew definitions enable innovation at all levels. The current Federal definition excludes: other costs of living, sources of income, human capital and social capital --limiting expectations and interventions. Exploring alternatives to the consumption & income model such as cultural universals, quality of life standards, survey based definitions, and definitions in use elsewhere could enable innovation in how poverty is addressed.  
bulletNew definitions can create more opportunity for people to maximize their potential to achieve success. Social assets, financial assets and human capital help people avoid poverty or escape it quickly. Providing education, other services and infrastructure may alleviate poverty more effectively than increasing income.

      In reviewing large-scale societal models, one of the most comprehensive was developed by Nobel Prize Winning economist and Harvard Professor Amartya Sen. Professor Sen creates a framework of society that flows from inputs, to rules and processes, to outcomes. He says that “…every normative theory of social arrangement that has at all stood the test of time seems to demand equality of something – something that is regarded as particularly important in that theory.” (Inequality Reexamined. P.12, Harvard University Press, 1995). One challenge in his model is that you can only establish equality across one slice of the system, because everything on either side of that plane will of necessity be in disequilibrium.

  Sen says that too great an emphasis has been placed on trying to generate equality of outcomes -- which in our example is family incomes. Further, the traditional counter argument to the idea that the government should guarantee these outcomes (the welfare/ majoritarian/ utilitarian arguments) has been the libertarian argument, that the government should only guarantee the processes or ‘rules of the game’ and should have no role in assuring outcomes.

  Sen moves further back from both of these arguments and says that the best role for government is helping people get the education and other “inputs” (primary goods) that they need to function in that society. Sen’s work is useful to us because it provides a framework that is generally accepted in the fields of economics, philosophy and international development. Sen’s model allows us to organize and synthesize all the bits-and-pieces of the other definitions in use around the world. It is consistent with the principles proposed in the 21st Century initiative and can be operationalized and used to assess existing policy and program priorities.

  Sen’s work moves us away from a focus on “needs” and shifts our attention to a focus on “strengths,” including social capital, human capital and financial capital. These forms of capital – which in Sen’s approach are the “primary goods” that people should start with or acquire -- provide insurance against slipping into poverty and provide effective ways to get out of poverty. They are therefore worthy of further development as potential elements of the 21st Century Model.

      As we continue to survey the definitions in use in international organizations and other countries, we will see that they have added many dimensions that are not considered in the current U.S. definition. These perspectives offer insight and serve as examples of alternative ways to define poverty.
 

Family Economic Security

The dynamics of the economy and families themselves have changed over the past several decades. For much of that time, the standard public approach to helping poor families with children (often headed by individual females) provided a small cash grant together with supports, such as health care and food stamps. While women entered the workforce in increasing numbers, parents who obtained jobs lost key supports soon after they began earning income for their families.

During this period, many other low-income families earned wages insufficient to meet their basic needs, but too high to qualify for supports, let alone cash assistance. By the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s, the public approach shifted. New rules did not discourage parents from earning money for their families and helped them gain access to entry level jobs. Beginning in 1996 with the enactment of sweeping welfare reform and continuing today, the expectation is that parents who can work do work. For those families, cash assistance is time limited and is accompanied by work requirements. Some level of supports, such as health care, child care assistance, and job search services are also generally available.

The shift from cash assistance programs to assisting people in obtaining entry level jobs altered service delivery systems and families’ lives. Systems that now assist people in securing entry level jobs have been strengthened, but there has not been a corresponding emphasis on strategies for poverty reduction. There are few mechanisms to assist people in planning or accessing pathways that will lead them out of low-wage jobs.

Most low-wage earners struggle to provide for their families’ basic needs and many find their rewards do not necessarily match their efforts. Access to jobs with benefits is limited. Low-wage workers have limited or no ability to pay for work supports (e.g., health care, child care) until after they earn enough to meet their family’s more basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter.

A large percentage of people experience a financial crisis during some period in their lives, but the support systems in the form of family, savings, possessions, and networks clearly differentiate the general population from the majority of low-wage earners who do not have such support. Asset building is critical for those seeking economic security for their families –including home ownership, savings, and human capital investment. However, there are few public resources devoted to asset building, and low-income families are rarely able to acquire assets.

      Low-wage earners have difficulty accessing mainstream support services. The most visible example of this is in the area of financial services. Payday lending, rent to own, and other predatory lending services flourish at a significant cost to low-wage earners in the form of very high interest rates. These practices as well as the inability to save earnings and build assets make things like earning interest and obtaining a mortgage virtually impossible for low-wage workers.

    Focusing on the person is often difficult for systems, organizations, and individuals within the larger ‘helping system.’ In addition to the public systems, there are many nonprofits, faith-based and community-based organizations, and other groups which seek to help families in crisis or seeking to become self-reliant. Services are generally provided via organizational or funding silos, which make it difficult for the system to have a lasting effect on the “whole person’s” capacity to be self-reliant and for the individual to figure out where and what services (s) he can access.  

    Individuals have the burden of navigating fragmented systems and programs. While Community Action Agencies, Workforce Centers, public human services agencies, and others have made an effort to create a “one stop” experience, they still must often refer customers to other service providers outside of their system. Few communities and systems have approaches that successfully focus on helping individuals overcome all of their barriers and maximize their potential. However, there is some creative experimentation with new leading edge service delivery options and the potential for greater focus on serving “the whole person” is substantial.  

    The creation of a 21st Century approach to family economic security focuses on generating new opportunities and high-impact strategies in four areas:

bulletBasic income and work supports;
bulletThe acquisition and growth of assets;
bulletThe ability to access mainstream goods and services; and
bulletPublic policy related to all three of the above.  

  Increasing Basic Income and Work Supports

      Sources of income vary by age group. The working age population is expected to obtain their income from wages earned through employment. Other groups such as the elderly are more likely to be dependent on Social Security (although Social Security assumes a minimal work history of 10 years) or income from investments. The focus of our deliberations is mainly on the working age population.

Sources of income for many very low income parents/adults have changed in recent years due to welfare reform. While wage earning is the major source of income, there are others. For example, self employment is a growing factor in today’s economy at all levels of income.

Skills requirements for career (and pay) advancement are growing as technology and global competition expand throughout the world. The increasing skill requirements make it harder for low-wage earners to move out of entry level jobs. They typically cycle through a variety of low skilled jobs where no benefits, no career ladders, and high turnover are built into the employer’s economic model. Work support from government resources typically prepares individuals for entry level jobs. There are few support mechanisms beyond that level that are widely available.

Encouraging the Acquisition and Growth of Assets

Asset building is a critical part of the equation to help people move themselves out of poverty but it is not yet a widely adopted concept and has few resources devoted to it.  

While we see a large proportion of the population experiencing financial crisis at some point in their lives, the support mechanisms in the form of family, savings, possessions, and networks do not exist for everyone. This lack of assets contributes to a spiraling effect that makes it difficult for low income individuals to move out of poverty. For example, not owning a home or not having a network of working family and friends when laid-off from a job can mean there is less of a financial safety net and more instability in the interim and greater challenges in looking for a new job.

Assets can be either tangible or intangible and both are important to moving out of poverty. Examples of tangible assets include savings, home ownership (a crucial piece of the equation in stabilizing families), and health benefits. Intangible assets include education and skill development, networks, and support systems. The most common way of finding a job is being referred by someone who is already working for an employer. To get a referral to a good paying job, you need to know people who are working in good paying jobs. If your network is limited to others who have no access to good paying jobs, as is the case with many low-income individuals, it is much more difficult to find a way in.

Human capital development is a critical intangible asset. Education is the single biggest determinative of whether a person will likely move out of poverty. The development of an individual’s skills is particularly important in today’s economy. Finding the means to acquire new skills that are valued by employers takes resources not available to most low-income individuals.

For a variety of reasons, including the impact of immigration, outsourcing, and the escalating definition of a “skilled worker”, low skilled workers are potentially chasing after a smaller number of low skilled jobs. There are fewer low skilled jobs as technological advances and global competition reduce the need for lower skilled workers in this country. This will lead to the continuation of depressed earning power for low skilled, low income workers.


Providing Access to Mainstream Goods and Services

Access to basic banking services are often not available to those in poverty. They are often forced to pay excessive fees to have the minimal money transfer services that are typically available for free to those who have bank accounts. Consequently, low-income individuals are not able to take full advantage of the small earnings or income they receive.

Predatory practices exist in several areas including home ownership, check cashing, payday loans, tax return loans and other forms of overcharging for services that cause low-wage earners to have to pay exorbitant prices for services. Many even pay inflated prices for goods such as food because, with only one supermarket in the neighborhood, there is no need for competitive pricing among vendors.

Housing is often problematic for low-income individuals. While there are several programs available to support reduced housing costs and some home purchases, many do not or cannot access these services. Low income individuals are often the target of predatory lenders who take advantage of inexperienced home buyers with low credit and little or no money for down payments. In many cases home values are artificially inflated and low-income buyers are left making payments they cannot afford on properties that are not worth the purchase price.

In the United States, work is valued as the path out of poverty and hard work is the axiom for getting ahead. But hard work alone does not guarantee success. The reality is that skill attainment and access to jobs pave the path to success. Many low-income individuals cannot access skill development services and cannot plan pathways for themselves that will lead them out of low-wage jobs.

Shifting Public Policy  

For the last few decades in this country, public policy has been focused on welfare rolls reduction and not on poverty reduction. Government programs are not well coordinated among themselves or driven by individual needs. But just as tax policies can be restructured to help low-income individuals maximize their potential, poverty policy should focus on collaboration among programs and the needs of individuals.

There have been some federally driven efforts to create collaboration among programs such as the One-Stop Career Centers under the Workforce Investment Act, but these efforts have had limited impact and do not go far enough to address the full range of needs of low-income individuals. Locally, some community action agencies have led efforts to streamline accessing assistance.

At the federal level, policies that support strong families have their base in efforts to reduce spending more than they do in building family structures. But in many cases, states, foundations, and local governments have experimented with new leading edge service delivery options. Some of these options involve better access to the existing tax supports such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, and state tax credits.

Community Based Solutions to Reducing Poverty

Historically, there have been two approaches to community building that now appear to be coming together. There are the traditional “place-based” strategies emphasizing changing physical structures in a community and “people-based” strategies which have emphasized developing human capital. Both appear to be necessary for sustainable community building.

We have learned that effective community building can only come from within the community itself; it cannot be imposed from the outside. Indigenous community leadership is an essential element that must be intentionally, systematically, and continuously developed. 

Most community building efforts today look at specific aspects of a community such as housing, crime, education, or job preparation. Few efforts take a holistic view of all aspects of a community. We do have some good examples of indicators of community well-being but they too typically have a more narrow focus such as the health and safety of children or economic competitiveness. The body of research on what works at a community-wide level and what can be sustained over time is typically not incorporated into today’s initiatives. Community work is often looked at in terms of finite projects with short durations and limited expectations. The reality is that community building is a long-term, evolutionary effort that grows as it produces positive results.

Effective communities involve all stakeholders, including commercial enterprises, in planning for their future. They have developed means of communicating with and involving all stakeholders in and of the community across sector, age, gender, income, and racial lines to come together toward a shared vision. Effective communities have established coalitions of organizations with a common purpose. All members of the community have and understand the roles they play and have a shared ownership of the future.

In effective communities, resources have been mapped and the community’s strengths have been identified as the building blocks for the future (as opposed to deficit identification). The resources that exist are leveraged so that there is much greater return on the dollar and service delivery is more integrated and person-focused.

Where We Are Today

A dichotomy of strategies has been used to fight poverty. “Place strategists" in the community development field focused on rebuilding neighborhoods through housing, retail development and attempts at job creation. “People strategists" in the human services arena focused on helping those living in poverty to obtain the skills, personal orientation and support needed to achieve self-sufficiency. There is a growing realization that both strategies must be integrated to be successful.

Change in the system may occur more rapidly if impoverished individuals and families are seen as customers and if the community applies the principles of customer relationship management and continuous improvement. Members of all socioeconomic levels must be included in the change process.

One-size-fits-all approaches aren’t working. Poverty is manifested differently in urban and rural environments, thus requiring different solutions. Urban areas are losing a sense of community due to sprawl and multiple hubs of economic activity. Affordable housing is a major workforce related issue. Rural areas are small scale/low density and have difficulty connecting to urban centers of activity. Transportation and lack of markets are major workforce related issues.

Increasing diversity requires understanding of how different populations relate to both poverty and potential solutions. Solutions require flexibility to address multi-cultural differences. Addressing shared cultural values – family, health, safety, and community - can help frame solutions.

Successful communities are those that foster positive relationships among residents. Communities with some level of social capital tend to have lower crime rates and better relationships. Social capital refers to the norms and networks that enable collective action. Social capital can take many varied forms, including congregation-based community organizing; civic environmentalism; participatory school reform; and numerous others.

Community building is continuous, collective action aimed at problem solving and enrichment that results in greater equity, strengthened institutions and relationships, and higher expectations for life in the community. Sustainable community building happens when the public is engaged, not persuaded.

The key to community change is having poor neighborhoods define their needs and assets, have a strong say in their own fate, and work toward making communities not only viable but sustainable.

Maximizing Technology  

Developments in information technology (IT) have significantly changed how individuals, governments and societies deal with information. There are new and better ways of presenting, analyzing and using information. There are improved mobile devices for end users, much-improved middleware, better-conceptualized standards, wider connectivity, new collaboration tools, and new and better models for doing business as a result of emerging technologies.

Changes in the world’s economy as well as emerging technologies are impacting business practices and create the need for all industries to continuously reevaluate their use of technology in achieving goals and objectives. Individuals and communities can benefit from the empowerment that emerging technologies now afford.

Current State of Technology in Human Services Service Delivery

Organizational silos and independently conceived and operated programs have led to a complex technological environment in Human Services. Many technology solutions are large-scale, complex, based on outdated technology, and designed to support single programs and as a result reinforce the “stove-piping” of program administration. 

Human Services Agencies (HSAs) have a variety of legacy automation systems. These systems are generally mainframe systems that have been in existence for more than a few years. HSAs invested valuable resources to develop mainframe systems that were once on the leading edge of technology. However, technology continued to move forward at an incredible rate of speed rendering the functionality of many human services mainframe systems today inadequate and outdated.

The legacy systems of Human Services:

bulletWere not built from the perspective of the “client”;
bulletContain limited functionality to provide holistic case management;
bulletAre expensive to maintain;
bulletLack adequate documentation;
bulletAre based upon programming styles and standards that are obsolete; and
bulletDon’t share data across the enterprise.

    Historically, it was not considered necessary for disparate systems in a heterogeneous environment to inter-communicate, or if it was, expediency came first. Now there is an ever-increasing requirement to ensure that data sources can talk to one another so that a complete “picture” is available for decision-making across communities and governments. Neither human services case managers nor individuals in need have the information needed to make rapid intervention decisions due to the lack of integration in the Human Services delivery infrastructure. Staff and individuals spend an inordinate amount of time collecting information, processing paperwork and navigating through inefficient business processes.

Access to existing information technology systems is governed by the ”silo” that owns the system. For the most part, information is limited to the organization or individual managing the silo.

Many local, state and federal governments are implementing “e-government” initiatives - meaning the ability to access government services and get government information electronically. E-government intends to provide increasing opportunities for citizens to access information, fill out forms, pay bills, and sign-up for needed services from any computer, at any hour of the day without human intervention.

Understanding Issues Related to How Individuals Access Human Services and Technology

For the most part, individuals access human services interventions by applying for assistance through an array of programmatic constructs. This typically involves an individual physically going to a local service office to apply for and be determined eligible for a particular service. Services are not necessarily arrayed in a fashion where resources are mapped or tailored to meet the specific needs of an individual. 

This results in the fitting of an individual into a “cookie cutter program” rather than designing an intervention that might have long-term impact. Innovative approaches involving the leveraging of technology to improve the service delivery system for individuals are beginning to emerge.

Technology (the Internet) is rapidly becoming essential for basic needs. A number of groups of people are unconnected from technology or are not leveraging the available technology because technology is too expensive, they don’t have access to computers, and they have insufficient skills to be able to use the technology.

Although access is an issue, a computer and the Internet are not much use without content and applications that serve people’s needs. According to Warschauer in Technology and Social Inclusion, the United States, which leads the world in Web site production, suffers from significant content gaps that affect underserved communities.

In other words, the specific applications or service interventions that technology affords are not available to meet the needs of individuals and communities to the degree needed. “Real access” to technology for individuals includes physical access, appropriate technology applications to address needs, affordability, capacity and training, relevancy, full integration and consideration of social-cultural factors.

Increasing Access for Individuals and Communities

Numerous on-the-ground initiatives are working to provide technology access and help put technology to use in underserved populations. There are an enormous number of efforts, ranging from tele-centers to training to innovative business applications. Many initiatives address specific aspects of the range of issues, but too often they neglect related factors that limit their success. For example, many tele-centers providing computers and connections in rural locations do not become self-sustaining because local people do not use their services – often they have failed to address the role of the center in the local economy or the need for locally relevant content. Other initiatives focus on specific programmatic concerns but fail to provide holistic end-to end solutions that could empower individuals to become self-sufficient. 

There is a need for a holistic approach to address the range of issues that communities face in serving individuals. Fully integrated service delivery is needed.  To date, most initiatives aimed at closing the digital divide have focused on providing low-income communities with greater access to computers, Internet connections, and other technologies. Yet technology is not an end in itself. The real opportunity before us is to lift our sights beyond the goal of expanding access to technology and instead focus on applying technology to achieve the outcomes we seek: tangible and meaningful improvements in the standard of living of families who are now struggling to rise from the bottom rungs of our economy.


Chapter 1    Chapter 2    Chapter 3    Chapter 4    Chapter 5

Appendix A (21st Century Model to Address Poverty)
Appendix B (Poverty Programs Summary and Matrix)
Appendix C  (Issue Papers)
Appendix C1 (
Initiative context presentation: Characteristics of Successful Change)
Appendix D  (Income and Work Support Policies and Strategies)
Appendix D1 (Working Session Descriptions)
Appendix D2 (Working Session Descriptions, continued)
Appendix E  (Working Session Descriptions, continued)
Appendix E1  
Appendix E2 (Current state presentation: Highlights from the research)
Appendix F (Participant List)
Appendix G (Project Staff List)

 


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