Think back to your introduction and first experience with the United Way. Was it volunteering? Was it giving? Was it advocacy? For me, it was our Sunday afternoon public service announcements when I was a teenager in the early 1980s.
What was on TV Sunday afternoon? The NFL of course. I grew up watching the great rivalries between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, the Houston Oilers and Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Miami Dolphins and the Oakland Raiders!!
The outcomes of these rivalries that span generations have faded from my memory, but it is the PSA’s images of children benefitting from NFL players volunteering in their community and our branding line, “From all of us, to all of you,” that remain.
In fact, along with being raised by a social worker, my mom, and a computer science engineer, my dad, that simple branding line sowed the seeds for my development as an economist, as a policy maker, as a policy advisor and researcher, as a teacher and coach, and as a husband and as a parent.
Today, Living United and Advancing the Common Good are United Way’s signature phrases, but I would argue that the rationale for our work is the same as it was almost 35 years ago.
What has changed? Today, our work has greater significance and importance.
Why? Over the past 20 years, globalization, IT, and changes in the US population have transformed how we work, where we work, when we work, and with whom we work. At the same time, we consciously let our social safety net and worker protection laws erode. As a result, more American families bear greater economic risk?
A natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, a loss of retirement income due to an accounting scandal, too much credit card debt and not fully understand mortgages, and most recently the loss of a job now have larger immediate and direct impacts, and their ripple effects within families and throughout communities are broader and deeper, and long lasting.
When did this shift in risk start? Does it remain today?
Since my teenage years during the early 1980s, I have been connecting dots. At first, my curiosity led me to ask questions because I was not satisfied with prevailing views. This spurred me to study economics, a framework that can be used to analyze and develop ways to reduce the risk that Americans face.
Here are some highlights of that journey:
People are in poverty because they are lazy: During the winter of 1981, I worked as an intern for Senator Moynihan. After commuting by the White House for a month and seeing homeless men sleeping on grates, the narrative that they were simply lazy quickly became an insufficient explanation. I wanted to know what happened to these men and their families.
Low-income parents value their children’s education less: The perception that low-income Williamsburg, VA parents choose not to attend parent-teacher conferences and school activities because they value their children less was inadequate. As a researcher and school board member, I showed the community that in order for these parents to achieve financial stability they had to work multiple jobs, and many of these jobs had very little flexibility. Further, many attended Williamsburg’s schools when they were segregated. Thus, they had less reason to trust.
A job is the best type of training: During the economic boom of the 1990s, when over 22 million jobs were created, many argued that the best form of training was a job. Again, this seemed like an incomplete story or narrative. One of my doctoral advisors and I published a study, profiled in the NY Times that showed a glass half full. Yes, the booming economy improved the prospects of young men, especially African American men, but it was not the “silver bullet” for reducing their chronic joblessness.
Even institutions with missions to educate exacerbate financial instability: Many Williamsburg residents had no clue that the College of William and Mary, the U.S.’s second oldest institution of higher education and public Ivy was contributing to the financial instability of its residents. The College’s Committee on Employment Opportunity, which I chaired, built the College’s President a business case that he used to justify increases in the pay of our housekeepers and landscapers. Along with these immediate adjustments, the President created a training fund.
“Jersey Roots, Global Reach” and “The Great Recession”: My latest dot comes from the “Introduction to Policy, Planning, and Health” class that I teach at Rutgers. Almost all of my students are from New Jersey, but if you dig deeper, they comprise a minority-majority class. Further, many are second-generation immigrants from Asia, Africa, Central and South America, and the Middle East, meaning that they are navigating a variety of assimilation issues. The class epitomizes Rutgers’ statement: “Jersey Roots, Global Reach.” In our class surveys, students come from all rungs of the income ladder, yet most knew of a close family member that the “Great Recession” adversely impacted.
What connects these dots?
What do these experiences have in common? What are their implications for our United Way Movement?
The U.S. and global economies will recover; but the social service nonprofit sector will be required to play greater roles in assisting people, families, and communities. The collective impact model that we are developing and implementing will be of paramount importance.
We must expand our notion of what is local. Although, the physical presence of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans remain, globalization, IT, international trade and immigration have shrunk the distance between communities. The impacts of giving, advocacy, and volunteering now have the potential of going beyond neighborhood, city, county, and state.
We must complement our “direct impact” work with “community impact” strategies, strategies that are holistic and long-term. There are no easy solutions to the challenges that we face. No “silver bullets”. They did not emerge over night and thus will not be solved the next day.
With the decoupling of individuals from traditional corporate settings, we must devise additional strategies for securing resources and meeting community needs. The General Accountability Office estimated that prior to the recession that one-third of the labor force work as contingent workers. Further, as the baby boomers retire, they will represent a valuable pool of volunteers, advocates and donors.
We must serve as a voice that supports stronger social safety nets, more broadly a voice that champions investment in the nation’s human priorities at local, regional, national and global levels. The impending fiscal cliff represents the latest political debate on the type of childhood, working life, and retirement that we want for Americans. If we allow the debate to continue to be framed as a cost cutting exercise and not as a values conversation that places people and communities first, social safety nets, worker protection laws, and investment in education, training and our infrastructure will continue to erode.
Finally, we must be advocates for each other’s success. If we are to succeed as a global movement, we must believe that the success of our colleagues, our neighbor’s community, and the success of other nations makes us successful. We must open doors of opportunity for each other.