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What Do The Poor Need? Try Asking Them

Gary Hirsch, Consultant, Creator of Learning Environments | 08/26/2015

The ReThink Health Model offers interventions that include “Pathways to Advantage”. These represent interventions, such as job training, that improve the economic status and productivity of residents and, in turn, their health. In this New York Times opinion piece, author David L. Kirp argues that in order to improve poor neighborhoods, the people who live there must have a hand in deciding the solutions that could help strengthen their community. He offers Neighborhood Centers, a Houston nonprofit that grew out of the settlement house movement, as an example—“Instead of telling poor neighborhoods what’s wrong with them, the organization takes a bottom-up approach.” They provide an excellent real-world example of these “Pathway to Advantage” programs in action—Neighborhood Centers has a greater impact by providing services that meet needs expressed by its clients rather than assuming what they need.

Angela Blanchard, Neighborhood Centers president and CEO, explains that the organization uses funds from 37 federal, state and local programs in order to keep running their more than 70 sites serving more than half a million people with an annual budget of $270 million. Taking the time and spending the money to conduct one-on-one interviews and community interviews has paid off—Neighborhood Centers’ career offices secured jobs for over 110,000 people. They have also handled tax paperwork for 177,000 residents, saving them $234 million in the past 5 years. They have even been able to achieve higher test scores than neighborhood public schools for students in the charter schools they operate.

Gathering resident input works—what would it take to make this a more mainstream way of doing community development work? What are other financial incentives you can think of? Do you have examples of nonprofits taking a similar approach to Neighborhood Centers?

Gary Hirsch is a senior modeler at ReThink Health.