Words from our President: Let Us Eat Cake

This month marked a very special occasion for my family. My youngest son got married and I had the privilege of selecting the music, taking the photos,

and best of all decorating the cakes (Yes, there were three!). Now, I don’t go in for your typical wedding cake dripping with flowers and fluff. Certainly not to disparage these types of beautiful wedding cakes, it’s just not my style. I like to add some serious creativity and artistry when I’m wielding a frosting bag and mixing my colors. Decorating a cake is a challenging project that requires careful planning and sure execution. Not unlike, say, designing good economic and energy security policy in the context of what’s going on with Weatherization funding and the administration’s plans for CSBG reform. The problem is that well-meaning people too often get caught up in the frosting of improved service delivery and lose sight of the whole substantive cake of ending poverty.  In fact, I think that’s what the Administration is doing right now.

Here’s how I go about creating a fabulous frosted cake and/or sound policy:

Step One: Picture the finished cake in your head. This is the vision and strategy stage. Know what your goals are and where you stand in relation to that goal.

Step Two: Assemble the ingredients. My frosting doesn’t come from a can – it is much too complicated. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. The beauty of a finished cake is the artistry and creativity, and the beauty of great policy is in its flexibility and innovation.

Step Three: Design the cake. This is where you plan exactly how to translate your vision to reality. Get all your colors and shades mixed and ready to go. Pull together everything (and everyone) you need to make your cake a smashing success.

Step Four:  Put it all together! Now for the fun part. Dive in, roll up your sleeves, don your chef’s hat and start frosting, blending and shaping colors into tones and shapes. Stop and evaluate along the way to see if it matches your original plan. Adjust colors or amounts as needed.

Step Five: Enjoy. This is the payoff. If you’ve made all the right moves in the previous steps, now you get to have your cake and eat it too.

Step One: Strategy

The Administration’s 2012 budget recommended reducing CSBG by fifty percent and transforming it from a formula-based grant to a competitive grant. Speaking at the CAPLAW conference earlier this month in Minneapolis, US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Mark Greenberg, indicated that there will be performance-based funding for CSBG.  This shift toward competition is happening in agencies across the federal government and not just in HHS and CSBG. The Administration is concerned about grantees receiving funding regardless of performance. However, Greenberg indicated several times that he welcomes our feedback as to whether they are on the right track or not. The Administration clearly wants reform in its recipe for CSBG. They believe some form of performance-based contract that rewards high performance is the solution. Luckily for us, they express a willingness to discuss how to design the recipe.

So what do we want to tell them? There’s a fundamental link missing from any discourse we’ve had with the Administration. They don’t talk much about poverty. It’s time to change the discussion. We as State Directors are actually fine with reform. We heartily support performance measurement. We even welcome some healthy competition when standards aren’t met. But measurement isn’t an end in itself and neither is competition. Both are means to an end; ingredients if you will. They might improve the outcome, or they might not. Let’s keep our eye on the goal, which is to eliminate poverty, not just rack up the numbers.

So our real problem with the Administration’s strategy isn’t performance measurement. Rather, it’s that this nation has yet to get serious about setting goals and targets for ending poverty. What do we want as a nation? What is our national goal around economic security? We want the Administration to put ending poverty back on the table. I have yet to hear any argument that cutting CSBG funding will move more people toward economic security. You see, impacting poverty isn’t something that’s easily quantified or empirically proven. Where is the evidence that empirical research studies add to poverty elimination? Or that competition among agencies moves more people toward living-wage jobs? There isn’t any. What I do know, and the research supports, is that a local, needs-based approach that leverages resources and provides bundled services does in fact address the myriad of issues that contribute to entrenched poverty (Allard, 2009).

Step Two: Ingredients

The Administration’s plan sounds a lot like trying to use frosting from a jar. A one-size-fits- all recipe spells disaster for the innovative place-based approaches we do so well. You can’t just take the Federal trend du jour and squeeze every program into the same size pan and slather on one kind of frosting.

I resonate with a concern aired by the author of a recent blog post on I on Poverty: “Soon, in-the-trenches anti-poverty practitioners with long experience, community-based organizations close to their clients, market-based programs with real revenues and real customers, and experimental, innovative initiatives with great promise may be written off as woolly-headed, undisciplined or unscalable simply because they are un-evaluated.”

So who should evaluate program success? Academics? Policymakers? Or those with a rich history and hands-on experience in providing community-based strategies that address identified needs? We at NASCSP argue strongly for the latter. We know what works and we know how to do it in each state and each community.

Step Three: Mix

Social service programs and block grants are just plain different from other types of federal programs. In a paper entitled Helping Hands for the Working Poor:  The Role of Nonprofits in Todayʹs Safety Net,  Scott W. Allard, Associate Professor, School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago, argues that delivery of community-based social service programs is very different from delivery of cash assistance programs, “While welfare or food stamp benefits can be delivered directly to recipients through the mail or an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card, most social services cannot be mailed or delivered directly to an individual at home.” Hence, the importance of place-based strategies, such as CSBG. The Administration would like to take a business model that just might work with categorical programs, and apply it to a block grant.

We need to ensure that the coming reform commits to ensuring that every community has a local agency to address its unique needs. As Allard says, “agencies embedded within high‐poverty communities also are believed to better grasp the needs of community residents and to be more trusted than agencies located in distant neighborhoods.” Research is also clear that different strategies work in different communities. The ability to “mix it up” as it were and be flexible is one of the strengths of the block grant model. We have to maintain that flexibility in CSBG.

It’s a major challenge to get the Administration to understand who we are and what we do. They have a hard time hearing us over the shouting about deficit reduction. The fact is we’re a unique block grant and we can’t be easily lumped in among every other social and categorical federal program. We’re the experts on what success looks like in anti-poverty efforts. CSBG works as a strategy because it’s place-based, community-led, state-managed, and frankly, good at what it does.

Step 4: Get to work

So, here are some general principles that the NASCSP board is committed to getting the Administration to understand:

  • This country needs a renewed commitment to ending poverty. The goal of ending poverty, not of delivering goods and services, should be the focus of all our efforts, research, and evaluation.
  • We agree with the Administration that the only way to know if we’re getting any traction in our efforts is to measure our success.
  • The research supports that local, community-based approaches work best at ending poverty.
  • State flexibility is crucial for creating great local solutions.
  • Agencies can and should be held to performance standards. Competition for CSBG funds won’t bring about new positive changes in CAAs and other service providers.  Why? They already compete for the majority of their funding.  Overall, in Community Action programs across the country, 6.5% of funding was from CSBG, other federal funding was 69% and State funding was 10% of agency budgets last year.  Local and private funding, which are very competitive, totaled 14.5%.

Step Five: The Payoff

Our cake has to serve a lot of people; over 23 million people a year, actually. That’s a lot of cake! Our data shows that over the past year, thanks to CSBG strategies, more low-income people than ever obtained employment, increased their education, and built their assets. Now that’s really saying something during an economic recession.

We support the Administration’s efforts to improve service delivery. But let’s stay focused on the important thing – ending poverty. Everything else is just icing on the cake.

1Allard, Scott W. http://goo.gl/jlUFf.