July 12, 2019  |  Insights

Start with Natural Networks

by Jorge Blandón, FII Executive Vice President

In his recent New York Times piece The Welfare State is Broken. Here’s How to Fix It., David Brooks explores the thinking of British social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam. I appreciate efforts such as Cottam’s, that question and challenge old approaches to poverty and address new social and economic challenges. I applaud the collaborative ethos Cottam proposes, and that she recognizes the importance of agency as a catalyst for change, valuing the importance of networks. 

Cottam does the math and proves how inefficient the British system is – spending over a quarter of a million pounds  a year on case services and still not achieving results for families. Similar statistics exist here in the U.S. with the expenditure in the billions of dollars while poverty rates remain relatively unmoved. She proposes a new approach where recipients decide which professionals are on their team. This approach is still framed with professionals at the center of the solution, which to me is a permutation of the old approach. I am left curious to know if consideration was given to the recipient’s natural networks as a source for support and solutions.  I can’t help but feel that this approach assumes the individual does not have natural networks to tap into. Why not start with natural networks as opposed to formal/professional ones? Tomorrow, when life challenges occur, yes, the recipient might individually be in a better place, but has this approach invested in strengthening the natural capacity of the recipient’s network and community?

I’m guessing that a  fraction of the salaries of the eight professionals mentioned in this article would be more than enough to intervene on the described housing eviction. Those dollars could even cover groceries, utilities, or rent while the person crashes with friends or family. Those same dollars could push self-agency further by allowing the individual to go out to the market place and hire professionals like middle and upper class families would. The underlying assumption here is that there is something wrong with the individual and thus needs these professionals around him/her instead of pointing to the systemic issues that may have caused the problem to begin with.

At FII, we see families every day tapping into their own networks to solve problems. 

Instead of empowering agencies, let’s put agency back in the hands of families – investing directly in their initiative.


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