Low-income Youth on MySpace, Non-Profits on Facebook

Social media researcher Danah Boyd recently concluded a study where she found that low-income, less educated, and minority youth are more likely to use Myspace, and white, well educated, wealthy youth are more likely to use Facebook. If Boyd is right, then why are so many non-profits choosing Facebook over Myspace?

Assuming the purpose of social media is simply to raise funds, then it seems engaging Facebook over Myspace makes sense. Facebook users are wealthier, and applications like Causes help non-profits raise funds within Facebook. But if we are to use social media to actually reach out to help people, Boyd’s research indicates that MySpace is a more logical forum.

Boyd likens the divergent demographics of MySpace and Facebook users to suburban white-flight. She argues:

Whites were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. The educated were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those from wealthier backgrounds were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those from the suburbs were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those who deserted MySpace did so by “choice” but their decision to do so was wrapped up in their connections to others, in their belief that a more peaceful, quiet, less-public space would be more idyllic.”

If indeed Facebook is akin to the wealthy suburbs, then non-profits focusing on elaborate Facebook profiles is perhaps as logical as building a shelter mega center in Beverly Hills. As low-income youth engage technology through sites like MySpace, the non-profit sector should expand it’s use of technology past fundraising to provide direct services to people in need.

(Photo by swanksalot)

Welfare-to-Work in a Jobless Economy

The recent rise in the national unemployment rate to 9.5% calls into question the wisdom of the 1996 welfare reform legislation that disbanded the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program in favor of the current Temporary Assistant to Needy Families (TANF), which among other changes requires adult welfare recipients to engage in “work-first” activities as a condition of receiving aid.

In any economic downturn, the first jobs to get shed and last to return are low paying service sector jobs, the very jobs low-income families rely on to survive. The 1996 TANF reform was predicated on the misnomer of the “culture of poverty” myth, an argument rejected decades ago by social scientists. The policy architects essentially argued poor people choose welfare over employment and therefor punitive measures were necessary in welfare legislation to compel people to work.

The policy was deemed a success for years because the legislation was passed concurrently with a market boom. Since there were more jobs at the time, people naturally got off welfare and went to work, not on account of welfare reform, but because of a strong economy instead.
With unemployment at a record 26 year high, economist Sheldon Danziger pointed out that

the overhaul of cash welfare since 1996, aimed at pushing single mothers into jobs, “makes sense when unemployment is 5 percent.”

“But if you are out of work, the welfare system in a time of recession doesn’t have anything to offer,” he said.

As the recession persists, and people time-limit out of welfare assistance, the flaws of the 1996 welfare reform will become increasingly clearer. If we are to truly move forward with a progressive, effective national anti-poverty policy, we need to move away from a collective cultural ethos that wrongly believes that poor families choose poverty over prosperity.
(Photo by khalilshah)

Obama’s “Most Promising” Social Innovation Fund

On June 30th, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that President Obama announced

that White House officials will travel across the country to find “the most promising nonprofits in America” as the administration decides how to spend a new $50-million fund to help charities expand innovative social projects.

Of course the President’s statement begs the question, what does “most promising” mean? The White House has spoken in vagaries about program effectiveness and scalability, but Betsy Fuch of the Modern Giving blog rightly points out that

With countless private foundations around the country squabbling to define the ideal due-diligence process, how does Washington know exactly how to build one? How will we be certain that those deemed the ‘best’ programs really are the best programs?

The real point here is that we simply do not know how to identify the “best programs” because we don’t know what “best” means. The private sector enjoys a standard quantifiable metric of profit that allows businesses within and across sectors to be compared to one another. Social service evaluation is infinitely more complex.
Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen argues that the Obama administration should use

the convening power of the White House to initiate a focus on impact and metrics. Specifically, the White House should help initiate a process by which categories of social innovations are agreed upon, and metrics can be defined for assessing the impact of innovations in each category on the social problems that they target. Just like independent rating agencies have developed methods for assessing the safety of investments in various securities, methods might emerge that help social investors categorize the type of impact that various social entrepreneurs hope to achieve, and to rate the present and potential effectiveness of their efforts to achieve that impact.

While I agree with Professor Christensen that the White House should use its clout to move the industry toward evaluative metrics, I do not think the government should determine what those metrics are.
As Professor Christensen himself points out, in the private sector we rely on independent rating agencies who compete with one another do develop ever better evaluative metrics. We need a similar approach in social services, whereby multiple well funded, capable entities work on the serious problem of developing competing evaluative frameworks.
Perhaps the Obama administration’s $50 million would be better used as research grants to develop a robust evaluation sub-industry in the social service sector. As it stands, without a clear definition of what “most promising” means, it is impossible to tell which, if any, organizations in the US are worthy of being funded by the Social Innovation Fund.

(Photo by wonderwebby)

Effective Until Proven Pointless

In the criminal justice system, one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, the same logic is misapplied in the social service sector, where social service initiatives are presumed effective until proven pointless.

Part of the problem is that performing social service evaluations is complex and can be costly. Agencies don’t always have the expertise or funds to perform proper evaluations. The bigger problem, though, is that agencies don’t necessarily have an incentive to conduct evaluations in the first place because of a common and wrongheaded assumption that if a social service agency is doing a nice thing that sounds intuitive, then it must be working. This is a dangerous assumption that is perpetuated in media portrayals of social services.

Take for example a recent article in the LA Times about a pilot program in the LA County jail system to distribute condoms to inmates. The intended purpose of the program was to reduce the spread of HIV amongst inmates. On face, it sounds like a compelling idea. We know that the use of condoms reduces the spread of HIV and other STD’s in the general population.

However, the jail environment is different. There may be a stigma effect in the jail that reduces substantially the number of inmates willing to opt-in to the condom program. Also, since the pilot program only supplied a limited number of condoms, it’s possible that inmates reused the condoms, used them improperly, or even engaged in riskier sexual behavior on account of the presence of condoms.

A prison is a perfect place to do a meaningful evaluation. The jail has medical information on inmates and could easily track which inmates opted-in to the voluntary condom program. Also, since the pilot was not conducted at all LA County jails, the non-participating jails could act as control groups.
While the article mentions a group of health advocates who said

that a successful review of that program could lead to widespread distribution of condoms in prisons throughout the state

the evaluation is at best framed as a necessary formality to confirm what is believed to already be known. Instead of casting a critical eye on the effectiveness of the condom program at reducing HIV transmissions, the author implicitly presumes the effectiveness of the pilot program by failing to challenge at any point the assertion that the condom program reduces HIV transmissions amongst inmates.

My point here is not to say that the pilot was ineffective at reducing the spread of HIV. Rather, my point is that without an evaluation, we simply don’t know. If we want to get real about helping people, we have to know whether we really are helping people.