Poverty Fighters Get Their Own Consultancy

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Among the countless ways in which New York City is a superlative place, one is its high number of poor people – and the quantity of organizations in existence to help them.

The latter list just grew by one, with the establishment of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy, Practice and Research at NYU’s Silver School of Social Work. Launched last month, the new institute is aimed at collecting, developing and spreading best practices among those who serve the estimated 3 million of New York City’s 8.3 million residents who live on incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which comes to $36,620 for a family of three.

NYU leaders along with benefactor alumni Constance and Martin Silver – after whom the social work school is named – saw a need among the city’s think tanks and direct-service agencies for a new institution to serve as a clearinghouse for what works. Formed with a $15 million gift from the Silvers (the “Mc” comes from Mrs. Silver’s maiden name, McCatherin), the institute incorporates a variety of efforts – from new graduate and undergraduate coursework, to an array of pilot projects, to an organized effort to collect and disseminate program information.

“We are more action-oriented than other poverty institutes,” said Robert L. Hawkins, the McSilver Assistant Professor in Poverty Studies. “We do what other poverty institutes do, but we want to be proactive and work with the community, knowing that some of the best ideas can come from agencies that don’t have the resources to move forward.”

At a launch event Oct. 16, Hawkins related the work ahead to his own experience. He recalled growing up in rural North Carolina, where his four-month old sister died of pneumonia – but really, he thinks, she died of poverty. He survived, and his personal connection to the subject was later magnified by studying families with a history of domestic violence who survived Hurricane Katrina, which devastated poor people of color more than any other group. Through that work, he developed a model called Economic Empowerment Assessment, “a diagnostic tool,” used to look at the lives of those who have experienced negative life events and identify where interventions could have been, with the goal of identifying where interventions can still be made.

This approach relates back to Hawkins’ life; he survived poverty because there were interventions on his behalf. Economic Empowerment Assessment focuses on the subject’s relation to money and ideas about their economic status, and it helps them set goals to get out of poverty. The tool is action-oriented, as it intends to study existing models in an individual’s life and develop ways to change it and them for the better.

“We’re calling it financial social work,” said Silver School visiting professor Phil Coltoff, a former CEO of the Children’s Aid Society and a primary advisor for the institute.

“We will utilize the world of practice as it is and add to it things that haven’t been done in education and social work since the Great Depression,” Coltoff said. In recent years, social work largely has been focused on clinical interventions rather than broad societal reform, but “the origins of social work were not in clinical practice, it was much more in helping to relate people and their needs to society.”

Part of this view is an explicit focus on race. Hawkins adds that although there is a challenge in bringing the reality of structural racism to the table, they won’t back down from it and welcome the conflict as a good thing in understanding how race works in poverty. He said the institute will strive to be a link between the academic and the agency, research and practice, and finally the resource and the individual, to find solutions to one of society’s most intractable problems. Its focus will mostly be local, but eventually communications about successful programs will flow nationally and even internationally, Coltoff said.

The structure is still being established. As it stands now about six faculty members from the Silver School have done work within the institute. They are still creating relationships with other NYU schools, including public service and education. A graduate course called “Ending Poverty: Best Models for Social Change and Social Action” has been established and an undergraduate minor in Poverty Studies is being developed. A planning committee of about two dozen social services agencies – among the 600 organizations with which NYU has a relationship, as locations to place its social work interns – has been meeting to map goals.

And by springtime, the institute aims to launch several pilot projects serving varied populations. Coltoff says they’re considering the areas of children and family work; domestic violence or homeless services; and seniors or immigrants as service areas in which to implement new training and practices whose success will be measured. A year from now, as many as 10 pilots could be in operation – not aimed at fundamental change, he said, but getting “from good to great.”

Through its Center for Economic Opportunity, the city already runs a number of pilot programs aimed at alleviating poverty and its outcomes. Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs, who oversees those efforts, addressed the McSilver Institute’s Oct. 16 gathering with a discussion of the Center’s work. Gibbs lamented the paucity of information on what works and what doesn’t. She attributed the lack of a working, efficient model for the study and reduction of poverty to a lack of funding for agencies, and a lack of a structured process of evaluation within the agencies. Without this process, agencies fail to achieve their goals and lose funding.

Community Service Society of New York CEO David R. Jones agreed. As leader of one of the city’s leading antipoverty groups, Jones applauds the institute’s creation as a complement to the work of his organizations like his. “Evaluation costs money,” said Jones. “The problem with evaluation is that [social work] nonprofits in New York aren’t really nonprofits, but are contract agencies for the government. If you made [the government] mad they cut your funding.”

This fear has led to the lack of evaluation in these agencies, he said. Where the Institute can be instrumental in solving this problem is to implement a built-in evaluation process and have the government fund it.

Jones was disappointed, however, with the lack of a stated focus on advocacy. Calling it a “particularly glaring omission,” he thinks that especially in this economy there should be a stronger focus on learning to advocate on behalf of the poor. In his view the institute can offer serious analysis of what works in helping individuals and communities, while also being a driving force for advocacy in matters that require a structural change in society. Still, he heralded the school’s focus on poverty as a return to the “real roots of social work.”

– Rae Gomes

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