Failed Federal Policies Trigger Local Activists

Concern over drugs and crime spur neighborhood groups to come up with new answers to old problems

SOMETHING distinctly apolitical but revolutionary is happening in communities and city neighborhoods around the United States. More and more neighbors are coming together in concerned and determined community groups.

Government entities are being by-passed, and so-called intractable social problems such as drugs, violence, and housing are being dealt with directly.

``What we are seeing is an uneven community-based movement slowly taking responsibility for local problems because the federal government in many of its social programs has been a failure,'' says Fernando Menendez, director of the Management and Community Development Institute at Tufts University near Boston.

Some social scientists say that despite costing billions of dollars over a generation, many federal social-service programs proved to be only well-meaning palliatives. Top-heavy with bureaucracy, the experts say, and prone to exclude local differences as marginally important, federal programs often surrounded social problems from the top, but had little follow-through or flexibility to remedy them at the bottom.

``There is no doubt that community people who are working to solve some of these problems are acting as if the federal government doesn't exist,'' says Roger Conner, executive director of the American Alliance for Rights & Responsibilities (AARR) in Washington, D.C. ``The federal government is locked into a left and right debate,'' he says, ``which is totally irrelevant now. Most community problem-solvers are nonideological because the problems are so severe.''

Although driving drug dealers out of neighborhoods and stopping crime has been the recent impetus for lots of angry single-purpose groups taking back the streets, community-based groups have in fact been part of American communities for years. The difference now is that single and multipurpose nonprofit organizations are close to being the major force in direct problem-solving at the local level.

No national statistics exist, but some experts say that as much as 60 percent of the social-service budget of many county and local government agencies are managed now by nonprofit community organizations. A study by the Urban Institute found that as far back as 1979, 55 percent of governmental social services in the US were under contract with private or nonprofit organizations. Another study in New York state disclosed that between 1981 and 1987, employment in nonprofit organizations grew three times as fast as government employment.

``There are three kinds of organizations,'' says Mr. Menendez, ``those that provide direct services, those that advocate on behalf of a cause, and those that get together to solve their own problems. There is a tremendous demand now for private and public dollars because there is a shift of responsibility without resources. All this started in the Reagan administration when he said many social programs were not the province of government.''

But even without resources, concerned neighbors are organizing to improve many unsafe and distressed communities. The growth of community organizations is a return to historic American pragmatism, argues Mr. Conner of AARR, the leading activist group for the ``communitarian'' movement (representing a balance between individual rights and community responsibility).

``If you go back to historian Alexis de Tocqueville,'' says Conner, ``he concluded that Americans were problem-solvers, not averse to taking things into their own hands. Right up through the progressive era, the proper response was for community volunteers to figure out how to solve problems. Then came the professionalism of social work and the police. Ordinary citizens were told they needed to put problems in the hands of experts who really understand. Give us your money and go back to your private life, is what they said. What we have discovered is that social workers go home at night.''

Community problems can be so severe and intertwined that successful community-based organizations, such as the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) in New York, recognize the need to expand their services.

Started by the Ford Foundation in 1979, LISC is the largest community-development support organization in the US, working with 875 community development corporations (CDCs), building houses and raising money to launch other community projects.

In 1992, LISC launched an initiative to help CDCs start to develop strategies that reach beyond housing, such as new business, after-school programs, and combating crime and drugs. ``If we peel away the political rhetoric of both parties,'' states the 1992 LISC annual report, ``as the nation moves to retool its urban policy, there is a heartening consensus, a belief that self-help and community initiative must be a crucial component of any new social agenda.''

Some social scientists like Menendez think the White House has been preoccupied with health care and international problems. But the staggering problems of inner cities are moving toward the top of the national agenda.

``I think the hole [of social problems] is so deep,'' Menendez says, ``that it is going to take a long time to get out of it. But I think Clinton has the realization that there has to be some kind of an integrated concern and plan. In fairness to Reagan, his administration tried to address the problem and said the federal government can't do all this stuff. But I don't think the solution is the market place, as he did. When the nation was founded, we created the nonprofit sector and said it was exempt from the rules of the market because there are things that need to happen.''

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