George and Harriet: Social Entrepreneurs

Over the last three years I have told anyone who will listen that business has an incredible amount of power to create positive social change. I am constantly reading articles and books that help me to see what is possible, instead of focusing on the despair around us. I am a glass half-full kind of person, and my blog today will reinforce that characteristic.

Although I will be quoting Arthur Brooks this morning, from the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank), I also love reading what Robert Reich has to say on income inequality. The reason I do this is an attempt to find common ground. Brooks does a good job in his book, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America, describing what I think is the common ground between liberal and conservative perspectives on the needs of the poor in our country.

Brooks lays out what he calls “five simple facts” concerning our current situation:
1. “Our nation is leaving the vulnerable behind, and Americans rightly find this as unacceptable.”
2. “The War on Poverty has not been successful, and the last seven years have made things dramatically worse.”
3. “Americans know these facts and are instinctively skeptical of conventional large government welfare policies.”
4. “While conservatives have criticized those outmoded policies, they have offered little in the way of alternatives.”
5. “Americans have concluded this is because conservatives don’t really care about the poor.”

I am not too sure I would say the LBJ’s war on poverty is a complete failure, but we have spent $22 Trillion on this war. We do have the same level of poverty as in the past, around 15%, and the most vulnerable are the people most affected by this lack of change. The data shows us that inequality is getting worse with the top economic quintile reaping the greatest rewards, while the poor are still living in the same conditions as the great depression. I do agree with Brooks when he states, “Instead of real solutions and genuine hope, those stuck at the bottom today have been offered class resentment and presidential sloganeering about the evils of rich people and political conservatives.” Although I am tired of liberal sloganeering, I am also tired of conservative sloganeering about the evils of immigration and building walls.

So, what are the solutions? First, I don’t think we should get rid of social programs. Although I don’t think government is the most efficient way of handling things, it does provide a service. Eliminating food stamp programs, and other social help is not what we need. However, if we are only using hand-outs then we are creating a dependency on government which is counter-productive to self-sufficiency and initiative.

As I read the story of Dallas Davis, I was convinced concerning the power of work; work that provides a living wage. Dallas Davis was homeless in New York City. He ended up on drugs and in prison. He would eventually end up meeting George McDonald, who, in response to the death of a homeless woman, started an organization that was both a homeless shelter and a job-training program. “Homeless men – many coming straight from prison – would live in a converted Harlem schoolhouse; learn to work and earn; stay clean and sober; and graduate, ready to enter society as value-creating, values-conscious individuals.” The goal is to help these men “reclaim their lives through the dignity of real, valuable, honest to goodness work.”

Comparing previous shelters with the Doe Fund, Dallas stated, “They always told me what they could do for me. But this was the first time I was told what I could do for myself.” Since 1990, 22,000 people “have reclaimed their lives.” I am curious, though, how many men had to be dismissed from the program?

George and Harriet McDonald began by treating these men as human beings. These men were not invisible; they were seen and treated with respect. One way they did this was by remodeling the Harlem schoolhouse into a warm and welcoming facility, with “a wood-paneled library, classrooms with computers, a recreation room with a big screen TV, and a beautiful patio that overlooks the Harlem River.” This was contrary to what government officials recommended, these officials told the McDonalds that if they made the facility too nice people would not want to leave.

As I read this story, and the principles the McDonalds said they follow, I was convinced that Social Entrepreneurship is an important business activity in the future. So what are those principles? They are Social Entrepreneurs. The following comments describe the principles that the McDonald’s felt were important.

First, people are assets, not liabilities. Liabilities are something we try to eliminate, whereas assets are something we try to develop. The McDonalds saw people sleeping in parks as dormant assets that could improve society. The McDonalds saw people “as assets to society, which meant they can create value denominated however you wish – which is what it means to be made in God’s image.”

Second, “work is a blessing, not a punishment.” Some will go back to the fall and say that due to the fall of Adam and Eve we were punished and sentenced to working by the sweat of our brow. The only problem with that is Adam and Eve worked prior to the fall, they tilled the garden. So work is meant to be a blessing. Work is meant to accompany dignity, and dignity is a result of our choices to be productive.

The third lesson is very interesting. “Values matter most in lifting people up.” I was interested in what values “Ready, Willing, and Able” pass on to the people in this program? Honesty and integrity are primary. Anyone in the program needs to be truthful. Another value is thrift. The Doe Fund, Ready, Willing, and Able; deducts mandatory savings from the men’s paychecks. This money goes into a savings account. This helps each of the men who leave the program to have a nest egg. Another value is personal responsibility. The are required to show up for work every day, and “pay a modest rent out of their pay.“ Doe Fund is teaching these men how to be a head of a household. Lastly, they are learning how to be sober. Obviously drug tests are a part of being in this program, if someone fails they are not kicked out of the program, they lose privileges. There is a strong level of accountability between the men. These men are required to sign a contract which lays out expectations. “The trainees agree to abide by these values. In exchange, the Doe Fund promises to pay, house, and feed them, provide work, education, job placement, and graduate services after they depart.”

The last lesson, that I think is most important, “Help is important, but hope is essential.” George McDonald stated that, “his clients arrive having faced unimaginable hardships, incredible violence, bleak, soul-crushing circumstances from the time they were little children.” Talk about conditioning, and feeling trapped, while wondering why the so-called American dream has passed them by.

I am going to end this blog with a couple of quotes that I found very interesting. In response to values, Brooks states, “Creating a separate set of moral standards according to socioeconomic status is not an act of mercy. It is a crime against the poor. It is an abdication of our social duty to hold one another accountable. It is shameful that our self-styled elites are so afraid to preach the very secrets to success they so readily practice in their own lives.” I have worked hard all my life to achieve what I have achieved, but I also recognize that I have had opportunities that others do not have. So our mission impossible, which George and Harriet accepted, is to create opportunity for people to improve themselves.

The last quote is in response to the comment that those who live in poverty and despair have no ability to capture the so-called American dream. “This is why our approach to helping the poor over the past fifty years has been so destructive: It reinforces learned helplessness instead of combating it. Dozens of assistance programs that seem sensible in isolation add up to an overarching message that nobody intended to convey: You can’t do it, so we’re going to carry you.” This seems to me to reinforce disparity rather than combat it.

Sometimes I get concerned about my students and their inability to connect the dots. There are extremely concerned with the situation of the poor and marginalized, rightfully so, but I think they want to rely too much on government programs instead of creating opportunity for the poor and marginalized. Unwittingly, they are reinforcing what they are fighting against. Don’t get me wrong, I think we need social programs to help those who cannot help themselves, and we need to have hand up programs to help people find the dignity so needed to create value in their own lives. So, as usual the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

And that is my thought for the day!