Helping the Poor Is No Longer a Priority for Today's Nonprofits

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The Chronicle of Philanthropy
By: Pablo Eisenberg
August 7, 2013

In the last decade or so, nonprofits have stopped caring about the plight of the poor.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, nonprofits joined together when cuts in social-safety-net programs were proposed.

Organizations that represented mostly middle-class people, like the League of Women Voters, professional groups for social workers, and major nonprofit coalitions such as Independent Sector, joined their antipoverty and grass-roots colleagues to fight against threats to the poor.

A wide range of health and education institutions, women's groups, consumer and civic organizations, and charities that aided the elderly made fighting poverty one of their major program priorities. They worked in tandem with organizations that mobilized the poor to fight for their rights­--most of them now gone--in effective partnerships that commanded the attention of political leaders and government agencies. The leaders of all those nonprofit organizations never lost sight of the enormous problems that poverty presented for civil society and democracy.

Today, matters of poverty seem to be off the radar screen of nonprofits. That couldn't be more evident than in the failure of nonprofits to rush to oppose the massive assault on food stamps now working its way through the House of Representatives.

To be sure, legislation like the health-care overhaul sometimes briefly captures the imagination of the nonprofit world, drawing broad policy and financial support from diverse organizations to do something to help the needy.

But most nonprofits continue to remain satisfied in pursuing their more-narrow agendas, whether related to the environment, education, or gay marriage. They show little concern about the ravages brought on the country by income inequality, homelessness, hunger, and unemployment. Their executives are rewarded by their insensitive boards only for the work they do on their narrow agendas. The indifference of political leadership to matters of poverty only reinforces the negligence of nonprofits.

One might think that access to a basic necessity--food--would be a right that everyone who works at a nonprofit would consider important. But that hardly seems to be the case, from the lack of action the nonprofit world took to protect Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or foods stamps.

The food-stamp program is one of the most important parts of what remains of our social-safety net. Just under 48 million Americans receive an average of about $134 a month in food assistance, an amount vital to their well-being. More than one-fifth of all residents in Washington, D.C., and Mississippi receive food stamps. Nearly half of the households that receive them have children.

Food stamps have historically been financed as part of a comprehensive farm bill. When the Senate drafted its farm measure this year, it approved a $4-billion cut in food stamps, while the House of Representatives eliminated them altogether--while preserving deep subsidies for wealthy farmers and food businesses.

Some House members are also pushing a separate measure that would cut about $20-billion from food stamps, causing more than 5 million people to lose benefits.

According to a new report by the Health Impact Project, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, such a cut would not only reduce the ability of low-income people to feed themselves but also increase the overall level of poverty in the country.

To their credit, when the House started its effort to abolish food-stamp spending, the Food Research and Action Center and its network of nutrition groups, the Coalition on Human Needs, and Feeding America mounted a stout defense of food stamps, with some back-up assistance from Bread for the World and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But most nonprofits have done little to mobilize opposition to the mean-spirited members of Congress who are willing to remove food from the mouths of children, the elderly, and disabled people.

Instead, many followed the lead of Independent Sector and the NName

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