Right and Left both get poverty relief wrong: Robert Woodson Sr

Jonathan Payne, a homeless man, takes down tarps he had used to protect his possessions in San Francisco, California, January 6, 2016. |

Leaders from within America’s most broken communities are the ones best situated to help people out of poverty, said former civil rights activist Robert Woodson Sr. at a Heritage Foundation virtual discussion on restoring low-income communities Monday.

Woodson is president of the nonpartisan Woodson Center, which he founded in 1981. The center helps residents of low-income neighborhoods to address the problems in their own communities. 

“We’ve spent $22 trillion dollars to address poverty. People on the right conclude that since what we’ve spent doesn’t work, we should just cut these programs. People on the left say we haven’t spent enough on these programs. Solutions are exactly in the same ZIP code as the problems are. But it’s fundamental elitism that prevents us from recognizing that," he said during the discussion about his book, Lessons From the Least of These

Most money spent by the government to combat poverty goes to logistics and the salaries of bureaucrats, said Woodson. The money that does reach the poor often fails to help them effectively because people from outside impoverished areas don’t know what the real problems are.

But local leaders know where money will do the most good, added Woodson, who previously headed the National Urban League Department of Criminal Justice and is referred to by many as the “godfather” of the neighborhood empowerment movement.

“First of all, they are problem solvers,” he said of community leaders. “They have demonstrated through their walk that they are trusted by the people that they serve. They have served as a catalyst to revitalize their entire community. They are the equivalent of social entrepreneurs. Usually, they get ignored in the process of revitalizing communities.”

People who have experienced the same struggles that poor people face and emerged triumphant understand how to help others do the same and serve as role models, Woodson said. Often, people feel encouraged to change when they see others have done the same.

“[Mentors’] lives are a living testimony that redemption is possible. When you meet someone you know that walked the same path as you do and they have recovered from it, it gives you hope,” he said. “There are a lot of stories of people giving of themselves only for these young people to turn around and give it back to them.”

Poverty comes in four categories, he said. Some people are poor because they don’t have money and use the welfare system until they can find a job. Others are poor because they are trapped in welfare by perverse incentive structures. Still, others are poor because they have expensive physical or mental illnesses. Finally, some are poor because they make bad choices.

“Category four is people who are poor because of the chances that they take and the choices that they make. Helping them in the same way as others hurts them,” he said. “They need redemption and restoration. We specialize in category four.”

America needs community leaders now more than ever because communities across the nation are collapsing, Woodson said. In poor neighborhoods, people murder each other. In rich neighborhoods, they murder themselves by suicide.

“Americans of all incomes and races are suffering a moral and spiritual free fall,” said Woodson.

To fix these spiritual crises requires spiritual leaders, he said. When leaders meet the deepest moral needs of the people in their communities, they often cause lasting change.

They don’t need academic qualifications or degrees to make these differences either, he said. As an example, he pointed to the biblical story of Joseph, where an ex-convict without an education rises to a high position because he's the only one who can do his job.

Woodson told several stories of peoples’ lives changing for the better after a mentor with a similar story had a personal conversation with them. Gang members drop their guns and take up coaching. Prisoners find hope. Drug addicts become ministers, he said.

The biggest threat to these kinds of local ministries comes from attitudes that encourage people to see life through the lens of race, he said. Such worldviews destroy community groups that help most to fight poverty.

“The race grievance industry and those who are trying to tear apart civic institutions in America are the biggest problems we face in America today,” Woodson stressed.

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