Making people feel good about making people feel bad

I find many anti-poverty “interventions” offensive to the poor, should I be nice about it? That’s the question I found myself faced with every time I speak at a public event.

So much of the social sector is deficit based. We conduct needs assessments to design interventions for target populations. This evaluative jargon, woven into the fabric of social sector organizations is inherently deficit based. By design, we try to identify community deficiencies (generally in communities we are not a part of) and design top-down solutions.

It’s no wonder only half of those eligible for government welfare assistance actually utilize it. Indeed, it’s well documented that the various requirements attached to cash aid make people more likely to walk away. The myriad of stipulations placed on housing and shelter services have the same effect, with homeless services turning to more effective solutions like wet shelters and housing first.

But so much of the social sector is engaged in deficit based work – even when organizations’ rhetoric suggests otherwise. Social programs “empower families” by lecturing people how to manage their finances and raise their children. Empowering indeed. And when families do create social outcomes, where do the dollars flow? To organizations, not to people in communities creating impact.

Indeed, most people living with low-incomes don’t even bother with our sector at all. We are a self-important bunch, much more impressed with our own perceived impact than anyone outside the sector. Organizations tout metrics like Net Promoter Score as evidence of demand, of community choice – but how many people would use these services if given a real choice? If communities were empowered with dollars to pick their own services, instead of government and philanthropy, how many of us would survive?

These aren’t popular opinions at social sector gatherings. I should know. I say something like this every time someone puts me on a stage. And I’m not popular.

Yet if I were to play along, to pretend that thinking the worst of the poor is the best business model, I might not offend those in the room at [insert social sector convening here], but I would offend my own moral sense of justice. It’s that very sense of justice that got me (and I assume most of us) in this line of work in the first place.

While a sense of justice brought us to this work, an unspoken rule of being overly-polite, where all nonprofit ideas must be supported and assumed good because they are born of good intentions, is the enemy of justice. Not all ideas are good. Thinking the worst of the poor is wrong, both morally and effectually. I’m not afraid to say so. My work is not about making people in conferences feel good about themselves, it’s about creating real results for those excluded from the conversation entirely.