The Mouthpiece of the Poor

economic disparity

Last week, I went to observe a meeting where the committee members – not poor – were making policy decisions for community planning and development.

Prior to the meeting, the facilitator succinctly explained to everyone that the office provided services to rural populations and did not provide direct services to or complete work for citizens. It was, in essence, a pass-through agency to local government and nonprofits. He also asked each member to think of the office’s programs from a statewide perspective.

The first thing that baffled me was how a group of well-to-do people, most of whom were heads of their respective organizations, could sit around the table and make these decisions. I understand they serve under-privileged populations and know that they need services and may have come from poor households. I also understand that funding is hard to come by, especially when you’re talking about limited dollars through a competitive process.

But having grown up in a “upper income” poor household, why wasn’t there at least one low-income person on the committee? One person to state, firsthand, how these policy decisions affect them, if, ultimately, these policies are about the services local government and nonprofits provide for them?

While that did bother me, what was even more annoying was the fact that all of their input was about their specific special interests: housing for developmentally disabled (services the office doesn’t fund), lead-based databases (another service the office doesn’t fund or have staff to keep current), public health initiatives (services the office doesn’t fund). There wasn’t one comment about the programs themselves or how they could be improved or restructured. It was as if the facilitator hadn’t said anything at all. Like watching a room full of politicians avoid the pointed questions and regurgitate the same old canned responses.

A holistic approach to community planning is a necessity. And that means bringing people to the table who don’t fit the normal business profile. People who receive these services needed to be around this table. People who could talk firsthand about how these programs effect their day-to-day lives. I believe that kind of input would open the discussion to really think about the outcomes and outputs of the programs. It may have even fostered discussion on changing the programs, which was ultimately what the facilitator wanted, but later admitted he didn’t receive.


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