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Professor John McKnight:
Capacity Building Beyond Community Services

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What were the findings of the study program and what was your reaction to them?


I think in the mid '80s at the Center for Urban Affairs, where I was, we were impressed that sort of the antipoverty era was still alive, and there was a lot of programming going on and money made available for people who were beneath the poverty line, low income programs that...that you had to be beneath the poverty line in order for the benefit to come to you. And so we decided to look closely in Cook County, which is the country where Chicago is located, at that money: How much was it, and where did it go?

And so we looked at all of the federal money that came to Cook County for low-income people. And then there were state programs, so we looked at those programs for low-income people. And we classified them by who was the recipient of the money. If we had poor people and we have programs that had money, who got the money?

And the answer at that time, and I think it may well still be reflected, was that 62% of all those dollars, federal and state dollars for low-income people in Chicago, right, went to service providers, that is, people in the social services, people in the health services, people who were, ah, producing and managing housing, and some dollars that came in food stamps, which people didn't get as dollars but they...but somebody had a market because there were people with food stamps that bought their stuff, right? So that 62% of all those dollars went to professionals and commodity providers, almost none of whom lived in the neighborhood.

So you have this anomaly, right, that there's a lot of money coming in—it was in the millions of dollars at that time—and yet two-thirds of it almost left in the hands of people who actually were probably middle class in the first place. And the other 38% went in, in cash and income, we would have called them welfare, to low-income people.

So then we decided to study what... what would happen if you took the 62% of the dollars that went to service providers and commodity providers—take that amount of money and divide it equally among all the people who fell beneath the poverty line. In other words we'll translate it into cash rather than services. And the answer is that if, at that time, we had taken that 62% of the money and divided it equally by the number of people who lived in Chicago beneath the poverty line, nobody would be beneath the poverty line. There was that much money that was going to deal with poverty but with the people who weren't in poverty that you could have, if you just distributed cash, had nobody in poverty in the City of Chicago.

So that's one other way of looking at the question of what is it that makes for successful neighborhoods. That allocation of money says what we believe poor people need is pre-purchased services. That we will take money that they might get and instead give it to social workers and psychologists and street workers and doctors and nurses and wholesalers and housing developers, right? And that will fix them up. Whereas the real issue is their income. And if there were national programs that focused on increasing income, rather than providing services, I think we would have long ago gotten way ahead of the problems that still plague us, which is a lot of people whose income is inadequate.

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