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Monday, September 20, 2021

When philanthropy takes the lead on fixing poverty

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La’Toya Pitts has been CEO of Christamore House for about 2 1/2 years, enough time to learn expectations for what the west side community center can do to help people are sometimes unrealistic.

In general, it’s not the community that sets expectations too high, Pitts said. It’s the large funders.

Here’s how: Christamore House tells the funder it can help a certain amount of people with a certain amount of money. Then the funder comes back with a lower dollar amount but still expects Christamore House to serve the same number of people.

The funders, in other words, want organizations like Christamore House to stretch each dollar as far as possible — sometimes past what’s possible.

“They think they know how much a program should cost,” Pitts said.

That can be a costly compromise considering America is heavily reliant on philanthropy to provide the basics for people in need. Christamore House, for example, gave out $19,638 in 2019 for living costs such as rent and utilities, according to tax filings.

“Philanthropy has a place,” Pitts said, “but we sometimes hold big corporations to a very high standard for what they should be standing for because our state and city hasn’t done a great job of using resources to make sure people’s basic needs are met.”

Philanthropists and those in the nonprofit sector point to the city’s recent rent assistance program as a success. The federal government sent COVID-19 relief funds to Indianapolis, which dedicated a portion to rent assistance. The city then relied on community centers to administer the program because those organizations already have relationships with their community.

Some also look at the government’s response to COVID-19 and see lessons on how to approach anti-poverty work in a post-pandemic world.

Shannon Buckingham, vice president of communications at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the government should make the recent child tax credit expansion permanent, along with adding more generous tax credits to make coverage in the Affordable Care Act marketplaces more affordable.

The recently passed American Rescue Plan, which included a $1,400 direct payment, will help millions of people, Buckingham said in a statement, but temporary fixes won’t be enough.

“There’s more to do to rebuild our economy so it works for everyone,” she said.

One of the downfalls of America’s approach to poverty is many programs are means tested and baked into the tax code in the form of credits. That means some people inevitably miss out on help they qualify for.

That also means the onus is on nonprofits and other organizations to make sure people know what help is available and how to get it.

Ann Murtlow, president and CEO of United Way of Central Indiana (UWCI), said the state’s 211 service has been helpful on that front since people can call with a variety of questions — from COVID-19 help to tax assistance — and end up at the right place.

For its part, UWCI invested $6.9 million in basic needs initiatives in fiscal year 2019-20, according to the organization’s annual report.

“There’s no quick fix to poverty,” Murtlow said. “We’re looking at not only solving immediate problems that usually involve basic needs but also longer-term improvements in life through better employment for adults, higher wage earnings, quality education.”

Still, Murtlow believes the country’s current approach can meaningfully reduce poverty.

“If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be in the business,” she said.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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