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Books: Acting Against Poverty: Premises and Programs

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Writers have brought varying perspectives to bear in recent examinations of the social consequences of our failure to deal adequately with persistent poverty.

In his book Losing Ground, for example, Charles Murray analyzes trends in unemployment, crime, teenage pregnancy, welfare participation, and related problems. He concludes that as a society we do too much for the poor; by our very beneficence, we create our own problems.

Using the same census data, however, William Julius Wilson offers a dramatically different interpretation in The Truly Disadvantaged. The central issue, he concludes, is the declining number of minority males who have jobs that will allow them to consider marriage and families. This phenomenon to a large degree accounts for the increasing number of poor, female-headed households, many of which sooner or later turn to welfare.

Lawrence Mead stakes out yet another position in his book, Beyond Entitlement. In his view, the problems faced by the poor can be traced ultimately to a lack of "character"--defined, in this case, as a willingness to report to work on time, to hold a job long enough to earn advancement, or to get married and stay married so that the family can evolve as a unit.

Stepping into this debate with her new book, Lisbeth B. Schorr points to potential solutions in action-oriented programs addressing the needs of the disadvantaged.

While the working projects and proposals for expansion she describes in Within Our Reach are neither simple to plan nor easy to implement, they deserve careful study; in the end, they may prove feasible for large populations.

And, having served as director of health activities for the community-action program of President Johnson's War on Poverty, Ms. Schorr offers an intimate and insightful account of the origin of several important projects.

Rather than merely reiterate the data made familiar by Mr. Murray, Mr. Wilson, Mr. Mead, and others, Ms. Schorr--now a lecturer in social medicine and health policy at the Harvard Medical School--places the information within the context of action.

Indeed, her unrepentant optimism about the ability to act against poverty, discrimination, and associated ills might tempt some readers to label the author as a card-carrying liberal--one who resists the recent political messages of free enterprise and individual responsibility, public-private partnerships, and local control.

But such a dismissal would be a mistake. Ms. Schorr backs her optimism with hard facts and examples of existing programs that work.

Researchers, however, will be distressed by the ease with which she accepts project-evaluation data. She enthusiastically embraces positive findings despite methodological flaws common in studies of social-service programs: lack of specific control groups, absence of comparisons with alternative methods, and neglect of other standard research practices.

Ms. Schorr proclaims Head Start, for example, as a winner based on a few "flagship" studies--to use the early-childhood researcher Heather Weiss's term--such as High/Scope's Perry Preschool Project and the Institute for Developmental Studies' Harlem Project.

But she does not mention the troublesome synthesis of research prepared by csr Inc. in 1985 for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Reviewing Head Start research conducted since the Westinghouse Report of the late 1960's, this study found little to be enthused about.

In fact, because of the limitations of available research data, we simply cannot say with certainty that every Head Start program is successful.

The greatest contribution of Within Our Reach is thus not its description of particular projects, nor its optimistic tone, but its identification of principles that, if applied properly, will ensure the success of almost any program for the poor.

As her basic premise, Ms. Schorr insists on flexibility and outreach: To help the disadvantaged, she writes, programs must "find ways to adapt or circumvent traditional professional and bureaucratic limitations when necessary to meet the needs of those they serve."

It is unrealistic, for example, to expect success in a health-care program for the poor that requires its clients to find transportation to a far-distant hospital staffed by people with little or no training in or understanding of the problems facing the disadvantaged.

But a school-based health clinic just down the hall from English 101 will work--because it is accessible and its staff is trained to deal with the broader needs of the client population.

Her second premise is comprehensiveness: Any successful program for the poor, she says, will have to touch all facets of clients' lives.

And to moderate the intrusiveness of such efforts, service programs must respect the lives and integrity of the participants--Ms. Schorr's third premise.

All three are derived from an analysis of programs that work--those obtaining lasting, broad-scale results.

Ms. Schorr also attempts to answer another question overlooked in most books on social problems: how to implement in broad programs strategies that have succeeded in isolated models. Because society moves with glacial slowness and bureaucracies are reluctant to make changes, the transfer process defeats one reform effort after another.

Efforts to widely disseminate initiatives that have worked at the demonstration level often so dilute or compromise the model that its effectiveness is destroyed.

Ms. Schorr points out my favorite example of this phenomenon: the Higher Horizon project in New York City. This innovative project was established in the 1950's to boost junior-high-school students' academic achievement, high-school graduation rates, and college attendance. Upon review of the model, school authorities declared the project successful and installed it in some 10 other schools within the city.

But these shadow programs died a quiet death of ineffectiveness a few years later.

When I visited the project in the mid-1960's, its headquarters had been relegated to a hallway at 110 Livingston St., the schools' labyrinthine central office. Instead of specialists--as in the original project--the roster was composed of substitutes. The program's mentor had gone on to a post in Washington.

As the philanthropist Eugene M. Lang has found, you not only have to promise the moon to 6th-grade students in the inner city--you have to build a scaffold to get them there. And that takes time, energy, and money. It also takes, in Ms. Schorr's view, outreach, breadth, and respect.

This book is must reading for all who are committed to change in society, particularly change through education and social services. The perspectives of an author who helped create the social-action programs of the 1960's are as enjoyable as they are illuminating.

Readers familiar with other books on social change can skip over the statistical sections and concentrate on the program descriptions.

In making their own judgments about these efforts, readers should consider three elements: the quality of the personnel provided in successful programs; the type of evaluation they include; and the cost-benefit analysis that has attracted the business community to them.

Within Our Reach serves us well. We owe Ms. Schorr a debt of thanks.


David P. Weikart is president of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation.

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