Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Road to Restoring Human Dignity

For decades, our society has struggled with the social issues surrounding poverty. Some believe that people are poor because they were born into the wrong family, race or culture, while others believe poverty is a matter of being unlucky, unwilling or incapable. Sound reasoning shows us that there is no single reason why, at any given time, an individual has fewer resources. Yet, public policies are often based on such generalities or assumptions, and that's wrong.

However, while we know stereotypes and generalities lead to inaccurate conclusions, we can be certain that many expectations often become reality. That is, if we expect people to fail – based on the judgment that somehow they are inherently incapable – then often they will fail. On the other hand, if we expect people will succeed – and that it is mostly external forces that have impeded their success – then when nurtured, prepared and afforded access to opportunities, people will travel a path to success.

We also know that the public housing program started out as temporary housing assistance for working poor families. The vision was clear and the expectations and standards were high. Even with clarity of vision, the program was conceived and developed during a period of racial segregation and conflict. Notwithstanding that historical context, the expectation was that both white and black families were preparing themselves to live independent, successful lives, albeit in racially segregated communities. Over the years, as society changed and the government faced new and very difficult challenges, numerous (and often conflicting) rules and regulations were crafted to address these challenges. Many of these rules and regulations were reactive rather than strategic. And, in many cases, the rules and regulations were developed based on the historical and political context of the times, political expediency and, in some cases, priorities that trumped decent and safe affordable housing, e.g. urban renewal or highway expansion.

As a consequence of these complexities, the public housing program lost its vision and mission and became positioned to be all things to all people and to address all of society's social problems. To accommodate this very complicated (and some would say impossible) mission, the rules and regulations drove the expectations and standards down to a level where there no longer were any meaningful expectations and standards.

Most of the politicians and administrators charged with overseeing the public housing program assumed that all people who received housing assistance in public housing were helpless and incapable of being successful in the mainstream. I refuse to accept this premise. In fact, in 1994, when I decided to take on the challenges at the Atlanta Housing Authority, I knew that the only way to address the myriad problems was to call on my faith and follow my belief that all people are children of God, with unlimited human potential.

I firmly believe that when our lives and our work are not guided by our faith and by high moral and ethical standards emanating from our faith, our vision becomes distorted and we lose our way. When we fail to apply high expectations and standards to ourselves and to the people we serve, we get outcomes that fall far short of what is possible. I further believe our faith requires us to advance the notion that each individual, because of his God-given potential, is responsible for his or her own life and that each individual is capable of success regardless of family, race, creed, culture or financial circumstance.

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I know that when discussing public policy, it's not popular to talk about faith because it makes people uncomfortable. Let's not forget that while America's Founding Fathers insisted on the separation of church and state, they were mostly men guided by their own strong faith-derived values. That combination of secular government shaped by strong values has created discomfort throughout our nation's history, and with this writing, I also intend to make the reader uncomfortable. I will start by describing the bleak, on-the-ground reality faced by Atlanta in the 1990s, and by many other large cities today.

Because of failed public policies and low expectations, the public housing program in Atlanta became a system that created an institutionalized culture of poverty for people who were temporarily down on their luck. Temporary became permanent for most, recycling itself to fit generations of families.

The program suffered from several fatal flaws, including:

  • A failed social design of concentrated poverty.
  • Very low expectations and standards.
  • No requirements for personal responsibility.
  • No support for personal transformation.
  • No opportunities for economic independence and upward mobility.
  • And, no access to quality education; all of the "captive" schools that served the public housing projects were failing.

The public housing program had become the "devil's bargain." That is, in exchange for a social, financial, and housing arrangement – with no or low standards and without personal accountability or responsibility – one could live in a compromised, dangerous and dysfunctional housing development. Because it was the only affordable option available to them, families needing assistance with paying their rent, found themselves in environments where, over time, they were exploited and destroyed by the chaos that resulted from concentrated poverty and low expectations and standards.

The unintended but predictable consequence of these environments was that society's criminals and predators were empowered, and the vulnerable, law-abiding, very low-income families who found themselves trapped in these no-win situations were imperiled.

After a few years of living in this social disorder, families that were only seeking rental assistance tended to become poorer and poorer, more dependent, distrustful and further stigmatized.

In due course, the law-abiding residents, in their hearts, questioned why a system was allowed to exist when it so overwhelmingly favored thugs and predators over children, mothers and the elderly. Ultimately all families learned they couldn't trust housing authority officials, elected officials, or government officials of any ilk because they had been compromised and entrapped by the system itself.

For sure, the issues of poverty are complex. And, we would be well-served to remember that there is a big difference between having little income and being institutionalized into a culture of poverty.

~ ~ ~

Given this background and context, in September 1994, when we started our public housing transformation in partnership with private sector developers, we understood that the old model of concentrated poverty and low expectations and standards had failed and must end. We knew our efforts would not be successful if we could not restore integrity and human dignity by pursuing strategies that insure great outcomes for the assisted families and the larger society, earn their trust and change the culture, minds and hearts of both the assisted families and the larger society.

One of AHA's strategic goals for mixed-use, mixed-income revitalization is to mainstream the families. In order to encourage, motivate, and facilitate better outcomes, we had to restore the human spirit and dignity by providing customized, long-term human development support, setting high expectations and standards, and requiring personal responsibility. Low expectations and standards only serve to break the human spirit and rob individuals of their dignity. Not only had this type of destructive thinking destroyed the public housing program, it has also systematically destroyed our public schools, child welfare system, publically subsidized healthcare, and most other social institutions and programs.

Because I believe that our faith must inform our work, I called on my faith to restore trust with the assisted families and to develop a rational system of thoughtful policies, expectations and standards.

I believe that bringing faith-informed levels of integrity and accountability to this work shaped my thought process in a completely different manner. Race, sex, cultural, religious and income differences are required to be eliminated as considerations. Now the same high level of expectations, standards and personal responsibility is demanded of everyone and for all situations. In a faith-informed context, the work becomes focused on building God's Kingdom, the place Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so beautifully refers to as the "Beloved Community." In this new context, mediocrity, low expectations and standards, segregation, discrimination and concentrated poverty are not tolerated.

All of us, without exception, are called upon to use our God-given gifts of unlimited human potential in building the Beloved Community. All of us are required to live with civility and respect for our fellow human beings. We are required to develop our strategies and policies and to take actions that create a kingdom that benefits everyone equally. Our mission is to strengthen the people we serve so that they are empowered, educated and enabled to tap into their own God-given human potential.

I further believe that high expectations and standards of personal responsibility are required of everyone. We are expected and required to educate and train ourselves and to support and encourage our fellow human beings so that we can all live a decent, full, and productive life. Failing to teach and train with excellence and integrity is not an option. Education is the language of life, civility and humanity.

So, what have these faith-informed expectations, standards and policies yielded?

AHA determined that as part of this restoration process, it needed to invest in each family impacted by AHA transformational activities by providing through professional counselors family-based human development services for a period of three to five years.

As a result of our new direction, the outcomes of assisted households have been stunning. More than 90 percent of the assisted, non-elderly, non-disabled households that reside in mixed-use, mixed-income communities are engaged in the work force.

When AHA adopted a work requirement for non-elderly and non-disabled households who resided in its traditional public housing developments not undergoing transformation in 2004, only 16 percent of those households had working members. As of June 30, 2009, more than 60 percent of the non-elderly and non-disabled households who lived in traditional public housing developments s or lived in housing made affordable through use of Section 8 vouchers were working and more than an additional 30 percent of those households were participating in education or training programs in preparation for work. I will never forget the power of the testimony of a woman, who having started working for the first time in her life, said: "Now that I am working, my children respect me and my pride has been restored," or of another woman, who had recently earned her GED, when she said that she " loves the joy in the faces of her children now that she can read to them."

Moreover, the families have been able to continue working (including finding new employment) during the current economic recession. Families are becoming homeowners, children are graduating from high school and going on to college, and individuals are becoming entrepreneurs.

Our work has demonstrated that if we are faithful, there is no obstacle which cannot be overcome.

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