What if social service programs have the wrong approach?
David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World, recently reported on an innovative approach to lifting families out of poverty. Rejecting the traditional focus on poor people’s needs and deficits -- which often ignores or stifles their innate strengths -- the Family Independence Initiative (FII) takes a different tact. Rather than creating centralized programs that offer prescribed solutions to the poor (the liberal approach) or assuming that prosperity will eventually "trickle down" if the wealthy are rewarded for their success (the conservative approach), FII offers a "third alternative" that shifts the responsibility for finding solutions back to low-income communities while providing resources and opportunity to those who take initiative.
FII's approach is simple: identify families that have the capacity for change; offer tools to identify their goals; and provide cash payments for every success they document. Crucially, it also brings together similar families for monthly support meetings. FII does not set the agenda for the meetings, nor are FII staff allowed to take any part in the proceedings beyond being observers. In the absence of external advice, the groups quickly become sounding boards and cheering squads to encourage members on toward their goals. With goals, solutions, and encouragement generated organically, participants tend to become much more committed to seeing change through. In its demonstration projects to date, FII has seen dramatic increases in family wealth and stability within short periods of time.
(Similar "conditional cash transfer" programs have had significant impact on poverty in developing countries, although New York City's own experiment, called Opportunity NYC, saw mixed results in its three year trial.)
Participant-driven programming is a key tenet of youth development principles, of course -- although one often more honored in the breach than in the observance. Creating an environment that enables -- and indeed expects -- young people to take a central role in defining and supporting their own success and that of their peers, rewards them for measurable steps towards their goals, and continually seeks feedback about what works and doesn't work -- it all sounds like common sense, but is often missing from GED programs.
Can the approach outlined by FII work with disconnected youth?