The politics and power of Poverty Inc.


By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — Victor Barnett has seen it all on the mean streets of inner city Milwaukee.

For nearly 35 years, Barnett and his Running Rebels Community Organization have directed thousands of poverty-stricken kids to basketball, music and plenty of other positive choices and away from the drugs, gangs and violence surrounding their homes.

The 53-year-old Barnett knows too many black kids who didn’t make it out alive, more who left in the back of a squad car.

But he and his growing Running Rebels staff have seen and done plenty of good in the city, too, changing lives for the better.

REBEL WITH A CAUSE: Victor Barnett, founder and executive director of Running Rebels Community Organization, is giving poor Milwaukee kids another option than the “poverty trap.”

The more prominent names stand out. Like Kevon Looney, who started coming to the Running Rebels’ courts as a fourth-grader. A decade later, Looney is one of the most highly touted recruits in all of college basketball, set to attend UCLA on a full-ride scholarship.

Perhaps Barnett’s proudest success story is Anthony Kazee. The young man faced 10 years in prison on a robbery charge. Barnett and others worked with Kazee in the juvenile justice system. They invested in him. Today the once-troubled teen is an engineering graduate from Tuskegee University now employed in construction in Colorado.

The saddest stories, the ones that hurt the most, Barnett says, are the kids who got away — the ones living, dying, without hope. There’s too much of that going on in Milwaukee, he said, but he still believes there’s time to fix it.

“I don’t want to leave this earth and feel like we could have done it in Milwaukee and we didn’t do it,” he said. “Milwaukee is catchable, it’s fixable. But every year we’re losing more young people on the streets that were border line. Every year that goes by we’re losing more young people.”


Why, after 50 years fighting the War on Poverty with trillions of dollars and government expansion, have we made such a small dent in poverty numbers?

The poverty rate, calculated by the Census Bureau, has fallen from 19 percent in 1964 to 15 percent in 2012, the most recent figures available. Indexed for inflation the rate is down more substantially, from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012, according to a Columbia University study, but that involves expanding the threshold of poverty.

Why are more than 46 million Americans on food stamps, and why do working-age people now make up the majority in U.S. households dependent on food stamps?

To borrow loosely from an old political campaign strategy, it’s not just the economy, stupid.

There are a an overabundance of questions and even more answers in the 21st century poverty debate, all depending on your point of view.

To a lot of Democrats, it’s those damn Republicans to blame for their constant quest to cut government spending on social services programs. To a lot of conservatives, it’s those damn liberals for wasting hard-earned taxpayer money without much to show for the investment.

To the people like Barnett, fighting on the front lines of poverty, there’s too much politics, too much blaming, too many inefficiencies and way too little accountability.

“It’s like putting out a fire, but instead of putting out the whole fire at one time you have someone putting out a fire over here, and someone putting a fire out over there. Now a gust of wind comes along, and guess what? The fire spring backs up,” Barnett said.

His organization has grown from a staff of one — Barnett as a 19 year-old college student in 1980 working to get 50 inner-city kids off the streets — to a workforce of 120. The Running Rebels assist 2,000 young people each year, but Barnett says they’ve got to scratch for every penny. He says the same big agencies are gobbling up the money and often failing to make a measurable impact in impoverished communities.

“A lot of the entities can’t do it anymore,” he said. “The old way of doing things may not work right now.”

But America’s War on Poverty is buried in the old, ineffective ways, and the status quo isn’t just costing taxpayers, it’s costing lives, said Robert Woodson, founder and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

Woodson, often referred to as the “godfather” of the movement to empower neighborhood-based organizations, has dedicated his life to helping low-income people address the problems of their communities.

During his time in the poverty fight, Woodson said he has seen a massive infrastructure, an industry built on the premise of helping the poor but operating primarily in self-interest.

“We have created a commodity out of poor people,” Woodson said, noting that his research has shown that as much as 70-cents on the dollar meant to help those living in poverty goes to everyone but the poor — from the federal agencies that administer programs to the “not-for-profit” organizations that serve low-income individuals to the health care system that banks on Medicaid payments.

“This service industry isn’t concerned with which problems are solvable, but that which are fundable,” said Woodson, a former civil rights activist and director of the National Urban League’s Administration of Justice Division, and winner of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and a Bradley Prize.

DEPENDENCY PROBLEM: Robert Woodson, who has spent his life working to reinvigorate low-income communities, says the poverty industry has made poor people a “commodity.”

In a recent speech in Milwaukee sponsored by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Woodson said race-baiting has become the weapon of policymakers who are bent on protecting the status quo, Poverty Inc.

They “said it was racist for black families to be held to the same standard as the rest of America. Welfare moved from a safety net, an ambulance service, to an entitlement to then reparations . . . In fact they said what we should do is encourage dependency,” Woodson said.

Milwaukee, through organizations like Barnett’s Running Rebels, holds the key to changing the community, but they’ll have to go up against cynical politicians and the interests of the poverty industry to ultimately succeed, he said.

Woodson, who said the same principles in the market economy should be applied to social services, has worked closely with U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in grappling with the American poverty question.

Ryan’s anticipated book, “Where Do We Go From Here?,” is expected to “challenge conventional thinking.”

“A large problem is the ‘poverty trap,’” states a 2012 report issued by Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee. “There are so many anti-poverty programs — and there is so little coordination between them — that they often work at cross-purposes and penalize families for getting ahead.”

Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, said many of the 90-plus federal programs armed to fight poverty were “haphazard” and ineffective, despite costing nearly $800 billion in fiscal year 2012.

That thinking does not sit well with liberals.

Ryan’s budget and his vision of reforming taxpayer-funded entitlement programs is more of the same draconian line, the “trickle-down economics” from conservatives, said Jim Lewis, communications director for U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.

Lee’s approach to tackling poverty is through more government intervention, using the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to bring “federal resources across the board together and address it,” Lewis said.

Lee and the Congressional Black Caucus have put their political capital behind the so-called Half in Ten campaign, a coordinated project of the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, the Coalition of Human Needs and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Its goal to build the “political and public will to cut the U.S. poverty rate in half in 10 years.” gives the Half in Ten bill, sponsored by Lee, a 1 percent chance of being passed.

The coalition’s goals sound ambitious, but nebulous. The initiative seeks to:

  • Create good jobs.
  • Promote economic security.
  • Strengthen families.

Lewis couldn’t provide cost numbers on the initiative. He said he’s hopeful lawmakers can push politics aside, but said he’s not confident conservatives can.

“Is the other side of the aisle going to stop saying (Democrats) are only doing this for political reasons as opposed to helping Americans who are suffering?” the congressional aide asked. “None of this will work if it is always cast in a political light.”

But politics and territorialism have had much to do with the liberal-led War on Poverty, according to Gary E. MacDougal, former business consultant and executive who advised former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, on welfare reform.

“Poverty means votes. It’s pandering,” MacDougal said, declaring his former neighbor, David Axelrod, considered to be the strategic brains behind Barack Obama‘s successful 2008 presidential run, among the best in the political pandering business.

Woodson said the fact that liberal Democrats have long controlled U.S. cities that have seen the largest declines is testament to the problem.

“Look at Detroit. It looks like Hiroshima,” Woodson said. “People are using their time to indulge their greed and not using their time serving the people who really need it.”

The crass way to describe the purveyors of Poverty Inc., MacDougal said, is “poverty pimps.”


‘POVERTY MEANS VOTES’: Gary E. MacDougal says serving the poor has become self-serving for liberal politicians.

In his book, “Make a Difference: A Spectacular Breakthrough in the Fight Against Poverty,” MacDougal raises the question of human nature.

“Why should we be surprised if people who are making their living in an organization where the better they do the fewer customers they have” don’t want their customers to succeed?

He said he gave a speech in San Francisco to business leaders and community outreach members, asserting that his goal at the time was to cut the number of Americans on welfare from 12 million to less than 1 million.

“A young African American community outreach figure raised his hand and said, ‘If we get down to a million or fewer on welfare, what will happen to our jobs?’ The light went off. I thought, we’re not talking about the same jobs here,” MacDougal said.

He lauds the welfare reform of the late 1990s, saying they have made a huge difference in a broken system.

Illinois’ welfare rolls, for instance, declined from 642,644 in 1996 to 47,895 in March 2013. Nationally, the numbers went from 12.2 million welfare recipients in 1996 to 3.78 million last year, a decline of 69 percent.

As the debate rages on how to confront America’s poverty crisis, Woodson said the poor are caught between Democrats who want to smother them with government dependence, and Republicans who want to cut everything to the bone.

“The answers exist, but it will take some investment,” he said. “But you have to treat the investment like you do in the marketplace. It should be conditioned on a promised return on investment.”

Organizations like Running Rebels have been paying big societal dividends, Barnett said. Now such models need to be replicated elsewhere and, just like the Running Rebels, the change has to come from within the communities, he said.

“It’s amazing to me. It’s easy but we make it so difficult,” the community leader said. “It has to be done from within. You can’t have someone outside the community come in and say we’re going to fix this.”