Helping Poor Families: A Case Study in Failure

Low Income Neighborhood

Here’s a program for poor families that failed.  What went wrong?  Adopt-A-Family was a short-lived program started to help African American families hurt by welfare reform in the late 1990s.  The program’s goal was ambitious: white volunteers, moving out of their “comfort zones,” would get deeply involved in the life of an adopted low income family and build an enduring relationship.  In the end the program fell far short of its goal.

Over a six-month period, half a dozen white church groups served their African American adopted families.  By the end of that time, to everyone’s surprise, three families had left the city suddenly and one church group had decided to terminate its relationship with its adopted family.  Within three years, the Adopt-A-Family program was not being mentioned in fund-raising letters by the parent organization, Tumbling Walls.

A Hopeful Beginning

It seemed so promising at first.  Adopt-A-Family was created as a response to the difficult situation faced by many families that were adversely affected by welfare reform.  Paul Lichterman, a sociologist, studied the program as a participant-observer.   (Elusive Togetherness: Church Groups Trying to Bridge America’s Divisions, Princeton Univ. Press, 2005, 133-170.)

Here’s how it worked:  County service agencies would identify families that were losing benefits.  Then groups of six to eight church people would “adopt” a family, providing support to help the families deal with their new reality.   Initially, social service agencies would provide information about each family’s economic and social situation.  Evan, a volunteer with considerable social work experience, served as an intermediary with the agencies.

At the orientation session, fifty persons showed up, most of them from theologically conservative, evangelical congregations and all of them white.  Teri, an African American educator who had been invited by Evan to be the keynote speaker, told them they were to provide “Christ-like care” for the families.  Every person is a child of God and unique.  It was important, she emphasized, not to remark on families’ social backgrounds, or the fact that most were black or that they lived in poor neighborhoods.  This would only erect “cultural barriers.”  Tonight, “I’m not going to do a cultural thing.  I’m going to speak from what I know from God.”  Each individual was special and to be treated as a child of God.

As the project began, most volunteers thought of their caring work as something very different from what government agencies could do.  They would create caring personal relationships that went beyond the impersonal relationships created by secular service providers.

Frustrations Mount

The result was frustrating for many participants.  Here is one group’s experience.  Community in Christ Church adopted a family headed by Quenora, a young single mother.  In their first activity, Pat and Kara, both volunteers, took Quenora to a doctor’s appointment, offering to take her out for a Sno-cone afterward.  However, instead of taking them to an ice cream shop, Quenora took them, to their surprise and discomfort, to a street vendor’s cart.

Talking later with her pastor, Kara told about her experience of the neighborhood.  “This is where she lives!  This is what she’s about. . .My immediate reaction was ‘I want to move her out of here!’  That’s my long-term prayer.”  The Pastor Nick remarked, “It sounds like you had some culture shock.”

How did the group determine what Quenora might need?  To accomplish this, the group used a discernment process in its regular meetings.  Many conversations in the group followed a pattern.  Did she need clothes for her newborn?  Maybe her teenage son Phillipe needed a job.  Of course, it would be easier if he had a driver’s license.  At this point, Karl, a volunteer, offered to ask Phillipe if he would like rides to the Department of Motor Vehicles.  He also offered to teach Phillipe how to drive, if that was necessary.  By the way, why did Quenora not ride the buses?  The group thought about this and reasoned that she might not be able to read and therefore could not decipher the bus schedule.  And so forth.

Over time the group’s relationship with Quenora grew perplexing and frustrating.  First, Quenora was not always home after she had promised to be there.  Second, she was hard to contact.  Third, the neighborhood was far away and, since Quenora would not take a bus, much time was spent shuttling her from place to place.  Not only that, but one time the group threw a baby shower for Quenora and lavished her with gifts, and it proved difficult to impossible for the group to talk to her about herself because she provided only one-word answers to most questions.

The Project Falters

Six months passed.  The group gathered for a discernment process to discuss their next steps.  Pastor Nick reported new information:  it turned out that Quenora was not on welfare at all, but on SSI [disability insurance].  This meant that she would not be required to take a job as the other welfare recipients were being forced to do by changes in the law.  Now their purpose was in question.  Their group’s goal all along had been to aid families making the “welfare to work” transition.

So what to do about Quenora’s case?  The group concluded that the neighborhood was far away and that communicating with her took a tremendous amount of their energy.  Pastor Nick summed up others’ opinions in saying, “It’s all about relationship-building.  Relationships take two.”  In other words, Quenora was not doing her part.  The group decided to terminate its relationship with Quenora and with Adopt-A-Family.  “There have been some good things about being involved,” the pastor said.  “It’s definitely a different neighborhood, and it’s stretched us.  I’ve learned some things.”  (p. 353)

What went wrong?  Here are eight problems: 

1.  Overlooking the expertise of social service agencies to help understand a young mother’s situation.  True, Evan, a volunteer, had connections with the social agency, but he mostly served as an envoy between the agency and all six volunteer groups.

2.  Ignoring a volunteer’s social work expertise.  The group focused on “the real work of caring,” not the “impersonal work” done by social service agencies (p. 141).

3.  Lack of curiosity.  Kara, a volunteer, did not want to learn more about the neighborhood where the young mother, Quenora, lived, or about its informal economy.  What about those street vendors?  Maybe they served a good purpose!

4.  Defining a young mother’s needs in individual terms that the volunteer group could meet.  For example, Karl offered to give Quenora’s son, Phillipe, driving lessons, but he might have asked whether Phillipe was in high school and, if so, whether the school offered driving lessons.

5.  Failing to talk as a group about social differences that puzzled them.  There were plenty of differences to talk about (rich/poor, young/old, black/white), but volunteers chose to think about these puzzles privately.

6.  Never asking the young mother directly about important matters in her life.  Did Quenora know how to read?  Did she have health insurance for her baby?  Was her son in school?  Why did she not like to ride the buses?

7.  Ignoring the power imbalance between the server and the served.  How might this have affected their communication with the young mother?  Was the breakdown all Quenora’s fault?

8.  In general, trying to “look beyond” social inequality.  It would have been better to acknowledge this and address it directly.


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