Back to Basics

Back to Basics

I recently became president of a $40 million social service agency in eastern Massachusetts. Six months into the job, I have come to a conclusion — one, I confess, that is part realization and part personal conviction. It is time to call people back to the basics, as in basic needs.

Demand for social services is rising and far outstrips what we can provide. Government contracts intended to provide support to those in need do not cover the cost of services. For Catholic Charities Boston, contracts fall short of need by as much as 35 percent and often do not allow for cost adjustments for five (or even ten) years. The financial markets are shaky and seem to be getting shakier. Fundraising competition is fierce, and with many corporations consolidating and/or relocating their headquarters, traditional sources of private funding are decreasing. Sound familiar?

It sounds familiar to the people we serve. According to Catholic Charities USA, 37 million people in America are poor. Between 2000 and 2004, the number of people living in poverty increased by 5.3 million. These are working families; nearly two out of three poor families have at least one worker in them. In January 1999, oil was at $11 per barrel; it hit $100 per barrel in the beginning of January 2008. That's a tenfold increase. According to the Economic Policy Institute, which tracked real hourly wages from November 2001 to November 2005, real hourly wages actually dropped $.05 an hour during that period. Food and Water Watch shows that food prices rose 6.2 percent in the first half of 2007 alone, while wages rose 1.9 percent during the same period.

In many of our locations, we run out of funds for heat and utility assistance by the third week of the month. Just one of our six food pantry locations serves 14,000 pounds of food a month to 600 families. Five new families join that pantry each week and we are the ones who limit the increase to five. Demand is rising. We had to turn away 50 percent of the people who came to our Brockton location for rent and mortgage assistance last year. Of those who came to us, 90 percent were facing eviction. Does thatsound familiar? If it doesn't yet, it will.

Throughout all this, nonprofits both nationally and here in Boston have been encouraged to invest in scalable programs that lead to long-term, systemic change. It's a good idea, and one to which I wholeheartedly subscribe. But I also worry we may be moving too far in that direction, that we have unfairly vilified the "Band-Aid" approach to helping those in need.

There's a reason you'll find a box of Band-Aids in every household's medicine cabinet. What's the first thing you try to do when someone gets hurt? You try to stop the bleeding. And these days, the bleeding is bad.

Of course, a Band-Aid approach shouldn't be confused with a long-term solution. If the poverty-fighting approach of the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors were limited to giving people food, providing short-term emergency shelter, and offering relief from mounting bills, we would never get anywhere. Indeed, such an approach, in isolation, might even exacerbate the root causes of poverty. Social service agencies like the one I run must invest in things such as early childhood development, adult basic education, financial literacy, and English as a second language.

But while it is important to teach a person to fish, today too many people are hungry. Today, too many people need shelter. Today, too many people need help to pay for heat and electricity.

I know, no one is pro-homelessness or pro-poverty. Pendulums swing, however, and sometimes they swing too far in one direction. I believe the funding pendulum has swung too far from what many view as traditional, old-school charity. When we disinvestin providing for basic human needs in order to fund long-term change, we have gone too far.

After six months of talking to funders, business leaders, elected officials, and the people we serve, I have come to believe that most of us would welcome a return to a philanthropy that supports basic needs. I recognize that the data does not necessarily support that claim. Catholic Charities Boston lost $340,000 in basic needs funding from the local United Way in 2007 because that part of our work no longer aligns with their strategic vision. Elsewhere, social entrepreneurship is the flavor du jour, and the conventional wisdom says that the "new money" is only interested in new programs and new approaches to age-old problems.

Maybe. But most people, at heart, are still "expressive givers." As the economy worsens (as it appears it will) and more people begin to experience some of the strain that the poor feel every day, I believe calls for doing more to provide for people's immediate needs will get louder. In fact, they already have.

Recently, I held a registered nurse in my arms as she cried after coming to one of our food pantries for the first time. "I just never thought I'd be on this side of it," she told me. None of us ever does. It is time to get back to the basics.

Tiziana Dearing is the president and CEO of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Boston.