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`Self-help' strategy

CURRENTLY, important segments of the black community are proposing a new self-help anti-poverty strategy. They argue that many of the poverty-related problems of contemporary black life require actions that can be undertaken by the black community itself. High on the list of these problems is black teen-age pregnancy, children born out of wedlock in single parent, female-headed, poor households, and homicide as the leading cause of death for black men. Long before this new anti-poverty self-help position emerged, black communities developed a variety of local self-help mutual aid approaches with considerable success. What is new in the current emphasis on the extension of these self-help models, relates to a larger, more pervasive agenda: namely, the juxtaposing of self-help and governmental intervention as either/or alternatives with the rejection of the latter.

This anti-governmental orientation needs to be carefully examined in light of the fact that a wide range of self-help groups are currently advocating governmental action. For example, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), Disabled in Action, Self-Help for the Hard of Hearing, Victims for Victims, the Center for Independent Living, Gray Panthers, and various women's health groups all strongly advocate social change and have been deeply involved in legislative action.

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Neighborhood self-help groups, too, which were originally concerned with traffic issues and local crime, have taken on a more political character, becoming involved with pollution, redlining, and utility rates.

What is significant about all of these groups is that they begin with self-help and move toward impacting on legislation directed toward institutional change. They do not counterpose self-help and governmental action. In this, there may be an extremely important message for the new anti-poverty self-helpers; namely, that self-help alone cannot solve the poverty problem, although it can be an excellent taking off point, and can be empowering as some objectives are accomplished through direct participatory involvement. But a fundamental attack on the cycle of black poverty requires an understanding of its fundamental causes. Some of these are: a welfare policy that is a disincentive to work, the continued existence of large-scale unemployment, despite considerable economic expansion; educational programming which produces a high percentage of dropouts and lifetime illiteracy.

No amount of self-help and moral uplift will have a significant impact unless the self-help advocates attack these underlying factors. Simply affecting the symptoms of poverty, e.g., teen-age pregnancy, homicide, and crime is not enough, although certainly a worthwhile starting point.

For poverty to be seriously affected, however, we must move toward a new comprehensive employment-welfare-education policy highlighted by the following:

A government supported, large-scale job creation program that provides on-the-job and pre-job intensive education in a protected setting to overcome longstanding inadequacies.

A day-care program for welfare mothers who may want to work if there are decent jobs with no disincentive for taking them.

A complete removal of taxes for everyone below the poverty line.

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A restructuring of our educational system.

It is clear that these objectives require governmental intervention. It's not that government has failed in the past; rather, it hasn't tried in a serious comprehensive fashion. The current self-help strategy has arisen, in part, because government has opted out. It would be foolish to reinforce this response by suggesting that self-help alone is the answer. Rather, self-help can achieve some objectives, while building new demands and constituencies for substantial changes in public policy that are essential to reducing poverty. Self-help can be an important first step if it leads to advocacy for structural change and is not seen as an alternative to needed government action.

Frank Riessman is editor of Social Policy magazine based in New York City.

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