May 25, 2016

The Limits of ‘Self-Help’ in Fighting Poverty: A Conversation with Erica Kohl-Arenas

Erica Kohl-Arenas is an Assistant Professor at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy and author of The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty (University of California Press, 2016). Her book focuses on how private philanthropic initiatives often focus on the behaviors of poor people while ignoring the structural inequities that produce poverty. 
What is the self-help myth? 
One might ask why we would not want poor people to actively participate in rather than passively receive poverty programs such as food stamps, housing assistance, earned income tax credits, or cash-based financial assistance. Why would we not want people to help themselves learn new work, parenting, or social skills and gain confidence from their own individual efforts to improve their lives? Yet we seldom ask what these frameworks omit and whom they ultimately hold accountable to alleviate poverty. For example, philanthropic efforts to address inequality seldom take on systems of wealth production that rely on corporate subsidies, low-wage labor and exploitation of land, the environment, and people. These omissions are key to understanding one of the central dilemmas of self-help philanthropy: when poor and marginalized people are activated to better their own conditions they may end up confronting the very social and economic systems of power that enable the production of surplus wealth. As clearly stated in a 1965 Rosenberg Foundation annual report, “Almost everybody approves if farm workers decide to build houses for themselves, not everybody approves if they decide to go on strike.”
Haven’t there been efforts – supported by both philanthropy and government – that sought the active participation of poor people?
The second ‘Great Migration’ during the 1940s and 50s of poor and working-class Black southerners to the urban centers of the North created newly visible geographies of racial inequality and poverty.  Urban poverty was exacerbated by automation and changing industries, rising unemployment, unequal educational and hiring practices, and declining or unaffordable housing stock.  In the wake of a widely criticized response to these shifts, including in the form of slum clearance and urban renewal programs, the Ford Foundation launched a series of comprehensive initiatives.  The largest included the Great Cities School Improvement Project, Richard Cloward’s Mobilization for Youth (MFY), and the Gray Areas program, which became models for the War on Poverty launched by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.  At the center of each of these initiatives was the participation of the poor in self-improvement and leadership development, theoretically to engage in decision-making on the matters of most concern in their own lives.  By multiple accounts, each of these initiatives were reined in when the foundation’s self-help approach reached its own limits – or in other words, when mobilized or “empowered” participants demanded change in mainstream institutions and social, economic, and political systems.

You call for a more structural understanding of poverty and more autonomy for organizers.  Did you find evidence of this in today’s antipoverty programs and movements?
Research on industrial abandonment, histories of redlining and racial exclusion in the banking and housing sectors, jobs paying less than a living wage, unaccountable financial institutions, rising housing costs, disparities in educational opportunity, the racial wealth gap, food insecurity, and systemic racial profiling and violence in neighborhood policing have recently been popularized by emergent and revived social movements and by public scholars such as Thomas Picketty, Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz, Darrick Hamilton, and others. Yet the enduring self-help poverty action framework has been cemented as “common sense.”  

The first case study in my book focuses on the complicated negotiations between Cesar Chavez and the philanthropic allies of the California Farmworker Movement.  I have come to understand that the struggle over grassroots organizing is never fully owned either by those “in the struggle” or those “in power,” and that the lines between them are sometimes blurred. The agenda-setting battle over a neutral “bootstraps” version of self-help versus a more radical agenda of self-determination were constantly negotiated. In more recent times, Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter movements are rare organizing projects that are self-directed, willing to take risks, and generally unconcerned with the constant chase for private foundation funding and the negotiations and compromises that often follow.  Though this is always changing as institutions are built and grow.
What has been philanthropy’s response to your book?
In the six months since the book was published, I have had many conversations with nonprofit professionals and philanthropic leaders, in California and elsewhere.  There was a clear recognition that, despite best intentions and significant investments, over the years philanthropic initiatives have not made a noticeable impact in alleviating regional poverty or improving quality of life for those who struggle to make ends meet in low wage jobs across the region.  One exasperated trustee claimed, “We have some of the most well- funded poor communities in the country.”

Some positive developments include a new focus on racial justice from the Sierra Health Foundation, and a growing commitment to advocacy and immigrant rights from the California Endowment. On the national scale it is hopeful that the Surdna Foundation is devoting a new initiative to worker ownership. While all of the philanthropic leaders I spoke with in California’s Central Valley were overwhelmingly generous with their time and wisdom, none were prepared to respond to the central critique presented in my book. I ask how foundations can claim to address patterns of poverty, inequality, and marginalization when they are not willing to confront the highly consolidated agricultural industry that produces and maintains these very problems across the region.  Perhaps Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation provided the answer I was seeking. As shared in his recent op-eds and public gatherings, Walker acknowledges that because foundations are ultimately created from the surplus wealth created through capitalist economic markets, there are certain limits to what foundations can do to address the root causes of poverty and inequality. In my current research I am interviewing social justice-oriented foundation program officers and leadership who aim to push these limits as far as they can.