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A system designed for and by the people

by Kirsten Lodal

This piece appeared on Huffington Post on September 19, 2013.

Since President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty on January 8, 1964, social services programs have helped millions put food on their tables and get back to work. Nonetheless, most would agree that the system is far from perfect, even out-moded. As the Census reported today, approximately 50 million Americans still live in poverty and millions more live on the edge of poverty in insecure, low-paying jobs.

As the years have passed, we have moved toward a more defensive stance. We've ignored the march of innovation and its implications for catalyzing true social mobility, and instead, have focused on fiercely protecting the hard-fought wins of decades past. While we absolutely must protect critical programs that help millions of families make ends meet, we should also take this moment to pause, evaluate our efforts, learn from what works, and consider how we can reignite America's imagination to design a system that helps lift families out of poverty for good.

Over the past 14 years at LIFT, we have worked with more than 100,000 families waging their own personal wars against poverty. Based on what we've learned from them - both their triumphs and their disappointments - we have developed some clear ideas about how we can move to an offensive stance as we rethink our nation's relationship with poverty. Here are a few ideas we will cover in greater depth through a three-part series aimed at helping us use the next 50 years to expand opportunity for all:

First, we must not think of people who are poor as different or separate; we must recognize the commonality of what we all need in moments when we feel on the brink. If we are honest with ourselves, we've all experienced times of turbulence, whether it was a health challenge, a divorce, finding childcare in a pinch or taking care of a sick family member. When we reflect on those times, what it felt like, and how we overcame it, we will realize that regardless of socio-economic status, we all need the same things in times of crisis -- money in our pocket, people who have our backs and confidence in knowing that there is a way out of troubling times. At LIFT, we've recognized that in this fight, nobody goes it alone. Why not redesign our social services system based on what we know we all need as opposed to an image of what "the other" needs?

Second, we must listen to those we serve. How do companies design the next blockbuster product? They listen -- systematically -- to their customers to design products that respond to their needs. Simply put -- human-centered design. Yet in the social sector -- the human services space -- we too often leave out the most important contributors to innovation, and ultimately, to solutions that work - the people we serve. At LIFT, we work side by side with our neighbors. We don't have a predetermined curriculum that the people we work with go through, but rather a model that supports the discovery and support of their multifaceted needs. And, just as importantly, we're building feedback loops to not only capture their views of our services, but also to take those perspectives and use them to adapt our approach to drive greater impact. Although the social sector may be more financially constrained than big business, we can and should make a simple yet priceless investment in listening to our beneficiaries -- our ability to innovate effectively depends on it.

Third, in addition to designing programs for the people we serve, we absolutely must design programs grounded in the times in which we live. We live in a world where we can use Yelp to unearth the best restaurants in our neighborhood, ZocDoc to find and book appointments with local, high quality doctors, and Passbook to organize boarding passes, movie tickets, and loyalty cards in one place, all accessible via our phone. Why then can we not design technology solutions to automate, streamline, and rate social services? The sooner we learn from the bleeding edge of tech entrepreneurs, the faster we will drive better customer service experiences, greater efficiency, and ultimately, more lasting -- and perhaps less expensive -- impact for low-income families.

What Sargent Shriver, President Johnson's architect of the War on Poverty, said in 1964 still rings true for us today, "the simplest description of the War on Poverty is that it is a means of making life available for any and all pursuers. It does not try to make men good -- because that is moralizing. It does not try to give men what they want -- because that is catering. It does not try to give men false hopes -- because that is deception. Instead, the War on Poverty tries only to create the conditions by which the good life can be lived -- and that is humanism."

As we move forward 50 years later, I encourage us all to not only remember the original intent behind this fight, but to innovate to meet people where they are today and where they will be tomorrow. If we resolve differences, put people first, and use the vast technology available to us, then together, we can revolutionize the way we work with people striving to get ahead.

 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the positions of Oxfam America.


CEO of LIFT, Kirsten Lodal founded the organization while in college and has since devoted herself to spreading LIFT’s innovative program model across the country. She is committed to changing the conversation about poverty and opportunity in the US from one marked by stereotypes about the deficits of "poor people" to one about harnessing the extraordinary strengths of people who are finding a way to get by even in the toughest of times, often with the least support. She serves on the Boards of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project and DC Greens. She is a frequent public speaker and has been featured by the New York Times, Huffington Post, NBC Nightly News, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, CNN, and MSNBC. She was also awarded the Jefferson Award for Public Service. She graduated from Yale University and completed the Executive Management Program at the Columbia Business School’s Institute for Not-for-Profit Management. She is the proud wife of Jeff Himmelman, an author and musician, and mom of their daughter, Billie.