Spotlight: Showing How Self-Help Works


During the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Robert L. Woodson was a "proud liberal" dedicated to giving the disadvantaged an opportunity to raise themselves from their situation. But as the movement gained political momentum, he grew disillusioned. According to Woodson, "Whenever it came down to actually transferring power to the poor, those who were encouraging blacks to take responsibility for their own problems ran into roadblocks."

He says the reluctance of white liberals to turn over power to the supposed beneficiaries of the civil-rights movement was "patronizing" and "not undeliberate." He describes waste and fraud in the poverty program the way many characterize Pentagon procurement processes. Moreover, he sees little difference between conservatives and liberals when it comes to programs for the poor, saying conservatives want to spend less money on the same failed programs. He calls Republicans "low-budget liberals."

Forced busing was the issue that pushed Woodson out of the mainstream civil-rights movement in 1967 into community-based activities. Forced busing, in Woodson's view, seemed to destroy the neighborhood's integrity and ability to operate as a social unit. Everything Woodson does today is based on the belief that communities know more about their own problems and how to solve them than does anyone else. He has tremendous confidence in the wisdom of those living in poor neighborhoods and virtually none in poverty technicians who are "parachuted" into poor areas to solve their problems.

Woodson was born in innercity Philadelphia 47 years ago. His father died when he was five years old. Though his mother worked full time, Woodson avoided the troubles that many in his situation experienced. "My childhood," he notes, "defies the myth that the home headed by a single black female is a dangerous environment."

Woodson attended Cheyney State College in Philadelphia and earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania in 1965. He was well into a doctoral program at the University of Massachusetts when he was drawn away to greater involvement in the civil-rights movement.

In 1971, Woodson became director of the National Urban League's criminal-justice program, where he spent six years dealing with issues like minority-youth crime, a topic about which he has written extensively. While at the Urban League, his own unorthodox, decentralist views began to clash with the more traditionally liberal approach there.

In 1977, he left the Urban League to become a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington, D.C., generally free-market-oriented "think tank." AEI had begun a project exploring the role of private institutions, as opposed to government programs, in meeting human needs at the local level. By 1980, Woodson had become director of AEI's neighborhood-revitalization project.

But Woodson wanted more than an intellectual involvement in neighborhood programs. In 1982, he left AEI to found the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (NCNE), which provides direct "hands on" guidance to neighborhoods.

The center does not attempt to control neighborhood activities. Woodson says, "We inventory innovative solutions by low-income individuals and organizations, try to find out what is being done by people who have experienced similar problems, and bring many of them together."

NCNE gives some technical assistance but puts more emphasis on publicizing proven successes. Media exposure for local heroes does much for their self-esteem. It also exposes policymakers with "the same tired traditional solutions," as Woodson says, to creative alternatives in the struggle to help the poor.

Among other things, NCNE focuses on enterprise development, alternative education, crime prevention, and family preservation. Especially interesting is Woodson's effort to reform the adoption and foster-care bureaucracies. The "foster care industry," as Woodson calls it, handles approximately 275,000 children, half of them black, and costs taxpayers $2 billion a year. Woodson wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently that the mortality of foster-care children is twice the national average and that "a significant number of youngsters become delinquents as a direct result of prolonged foster care." He also points out that 70 percent of the money allocated for foster care is spent on administrative overhead and services.

Woodson's numbers on the subject are enlightening. There are four times as many black families who would like to adopt as there are black children available for adoption. Nevertheless, many black children are put into foster households. Woodson explains that the reason so many black children go unadopted through the formal process is that the agencies that determine the suitability of families to adopt often judge by standards that have nothing to do with the black community.

Stuart Butler, the Heritage Foundation's expert on neighborhood self-help programs, says Woodson is unique in his ability to take the neighborhood point of view to the White House. Woodson believes that people who live in poverty are often kept there by government programs and that those who live in poverty know more about the solutions to their problems than anyone else. His record of success is evidence that he is right.

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.