A Disconnect

Several years ago a friend of mine told me, “Jim, I live on the northside (a relatively affluent part of Indianapolis), I work on the northside, I go to church on the northside. I don’t know any poor people.” I told him to come down to Goodwill and I’d introduce him to some.

More recently, I saw another friend of mine who has been tutoring some of the students in Goodwill’s Indianapolis Metropolitan High School. He grew up in a low income part of the city and has been heavily involved in the community for a long time. When I asked him how the tutoring was going, he quietly said, “Jim, I thought I understood the issues (related to the mostly poor, mostly minority students in the school). But until I got to know some of these kids one-on-one, I didn’t have a clue.”

Both of those friends are good, kind, well-intentioned people. So, I’m sure, are most of the politicians from suburbs and small towns who from time to time make statements and introduce legislation that indicate a near-complete lack of understanding of the kind of generational poverty that plagues the poorest, most crime ridden parts of our cities. If nothing else, it would be helpful if they simply acknowledged that no one chooses to be born into those circumstances. Some of us were just luckier than others.

Somewhat related to this lack of knowledge and understanding, an article by Ken Stern titled “Why the Rich Don’t Give” in the April 2013 issue of The Atlantic notes that “One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentages of their income.” The author wonders if “the isolation of wealthy Americans from those in need is a cause of their relative stinginess” and states “It seems that insulation from people in need may dampen the charitable impulse.” I hasten to add that I do not draw a broad generalization about this, as I’ve known plenty of generous wealthy people (and a few stingy poor people, too).

However, even in an organization such as Goodwill that has been working with a high poverty population for decades, we sometimes don’t really understand some of the problems until we get to know the people relatively well. That was our experience after we entered the urban public education arena by opening the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School in 2004. Some of us quickly began to realize that we had only had a peripheral awareness of the kinds of problems many of those students faced outside of school. As we got to know them better, what we learned from the day-to-day contact over time has had a significant influence on some of the directions our organization has since taken.

In my work, I consider myself fortunate to have opportunities to get to know and work with people at just about every level of society. That contact and a lot of experiences over a long period of time have resulted in a firm conviction that, for those of us who are relatively well off, getting to know individuals in circumstances very different from our own will enable us not only to gain a more accurate awareness of the issues they face, but also to be in a better position to develop or support lasting solutions to some of the problems.

If nothing else, knowing such individuals reasonably well tends to make us less judgmental and at times intensely aware that we don’t know everything or have all the answers.

Goodwill and Politics

During my career, which now spans four decades, there have been leaders from both major political parties at various times at local, state, and national levels. We’ve worked well with both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Goodwill is fortunate to have a mission that transcends politics and has appeal across political lines. Our employees, members of our boards of directors, donors, shoppers, students, and others we assist have political leanings that cover the entire spectrum. However, as we go about our work, we tend toward the practical rather than the ideological. We agree on a goal, find common ground around the means to achieve the goal, work together, and accomplish a lot. We’re mainly interested in what works – as long as the means are consistent with our values and basic principles, some of which are:

• Every individual has value, and we strive to treat everyone in a respectful manner.
• Work adds meaning and purpose to life.
• Goodwill offers opportunities, not charity, and fosters development, not dependency.

Opportunities we offer include employment for people who have had limited options because of a disability or other barrier. We also offer opportunities through our Excel Centers for adults who want to earn a high school diploma and begin work on a post-secondary credential that will enhance their employment options.

During the recession of the early 1980’s, we concluded that nothing would help our organization or the people we assist more than a strong, growing economy. That continues to be the case. Also, it seems to us that the better we develop the potential of our people – especially by increasing education attainment levels – and provide conditions that enable people to productively use their talents, the stronger the economy is likely to be.

As our organization has evolved, on numerous occasions we’ve redeployed resources from efforts that were marginally effective to initiatives that showed more promise. Over time, this shifting of resources, combined with a substantial increase in our pool of talented people – our human capital – has enabled the organization overall to grow not only in size, but in long term impact.

Unfortunately, over the last forty years, we’ve seen in our society negative trends in a lot of social indicators, including poverty rates, education attainment levels, incarceration rates, and a lot of health-related issues, despite a lot of well-intentioned programs that have cost enormous amounts of money (see my July 6, 2011 post). Fortunately, there have also been a few programs that randomized controlled trials have shown to be highly effective in preventing problems and developing potential. One of those is Nurse-Family Partnership, which Goodwill is implementing in Indianapolis.

In the face of massive federal deficits, it would seem reasonable to reduce or eliminate funding for programs with marginal effectiveness and increase support for evidence-based programs that produce significant long term impact. The future economic and social benefits could be enormous.

Reasonable people can and will disagree over many things, including how best to reduce social problems and generate a higher rate of growth in the economy. However, in the face of such disagreements, reasonable people must try to find common ground and not allow their view of the perfect to be the enemy of the good. My hope is that enough of our elected leaders in both major political parties would resolve to overcome and move beyond a toxic political atmosphere and resulting gridlock that have been preventing steps that might lead to a stronger, healthier, more civil and economically vibrant society that would benefit all citizens, including those we assist at Goodwill.