Imagine this! A local anti-poverty agency schedules a public hearing to reveal its plan to help poor people, a plan that will cost $487,250 and none of the “poor” showed up. That happened Tuesday night, April 22, 2008, in Durham, North Carolina where Operation Breakthrough officials declared that they wanted to get input from the public on the agency application for almost a half million dollars for the next fiscal year from a community services block grant program, administered by state government.
Fewer than a dozen people came to the community meeting room of the Durham County library near the city’s downtown and at least seven of them were either agency staff members, or board members. I was there and in a nutshell here is what Gwendolyn Green, the agency’s community services director said:
Operation Breakthrough, with its staff of seven people in the Community Services Department, will ask state government officials for $487,250 to help 19 of a targeted caseload of 75 poor people out of poverty during the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2008 and continues until June 30, 2009. That money, according to Ms. Green will pay the Community Services Department’s seven member staff, provide services to a total of 75 program participants, as well as pay various program operating costs. She did not have a breakout of the percentages of the money to be applied to each category of expenditures. In fact, Ms. Green’s Powerpoint presentation was so general and insipid that no could have gleaned any significant information from what she revealed.
For example, one slide in the presentation simply stated verbatim an agency description and other information on the Operation Breakthrough website. Here is that information:
“Operation Breakthrough’s mission is to promote self-sufficiency and provide comprehensive quality services for low-income families and individuals. Organizationally, we are committed to a work place philosophy which embraces education, social and economic growth and development. We further believe that high standards of leadership must be obtained through the development of a plan which will incorporate total community awareness and input from the public and private sectors. This must be supported by a commitment to improve the quality of life for the survival of future generations.
Operation Breakthrough, Inc., a non-profit Community Action Agency, has provided a variety of programs and services since 1964 to residents of Durham, NC whose income is at or below the federal poverty level and who meet other requirements. The agency is governed by an 18-member Board of Directors who are seated to represent the low-income constituency, as well as public and private sector organizations. Board meetings are held on the third Thursday of the month.
A Grants Management System is used for fiscal management purposes. A CPA firm conducts a programmatic and fiscal audit annually in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles, OMB Circulars A- 133 and 122, and regulations imposed by the Comptroller General of the U.S. The organization enjoys tax- exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.”
Okay, from that what specifically do you know about the agency’s work and its success or failure?
The presentation mentioned nothing about who the program would serve beyond stating general eligibility guidelines. She cited no numbers, and said nothing specifically about stategies. However, numbers from the budget page of the application the agency plans to submit claims the seven member staff will enroll 35 participants into the Family Empowerment Action to Self-Sufficiency Project during the first quarter of the fiscal year, another 12 the second quarter, and 14 more each of the final two quarters of the year. That, of course, totals 75. Yet, according to other information in this grant application, the agency expects to succeed with just 19 participants. In other words, only 19 of 75 people, about 25 percent will be better off economically after an investment of $487,250, or an average investment per person of $6,496.
Finally, in one of the most grandiose statements in the application, the agency responded to the following question: “Describe activities that your agency has undertaken or plans to undertake to advocate for and empower low-income individuals and families to achieve a greater sense of authority over their own lives and future.” The response: “The activities undertaken are public hearings, life skills development, parenting skills, teach advocacy skills, human resource development, workshops, computer technology training, round table meetings, partnership with other agencies, NCCAA training (whatever that is), supportive assistance and training. While enough funds may not be available for direct services, Operation Breakthrough advocates on behalf of, and always ensures that quality services are available for the entire population of low-income persons in Durham County.”
Statistics from several sources indicate that Durham County’s poverty population totals about 37,000 individuals and families.
When asked for an archive of success stories, examples of clients served during the previous four years of the agency’s initial grant cycle, Ms. Green replied that they could provide such a listing. Well, we will see. Right now though, from my perspective, dealing with just what I know at this moment, this agency’s efforts to help poor people out of poverty seems more like a cruel joke, not a serious strategy. Nothing in the so-called public hearing presentation, or the application to be submitted to the NC Department of Health and Human Serices, Office of Economic Opportunity, provides concrete evidence that even 19 poor people will stand firmly on the road to self-sufficiency this time next year.
So I am pulling together a team of investigative reporters who will comb through Operation Breakthrough’s records, talk to existing and former board members, current staff members, and clients, if we can find them, to determine if we can measure this organization’s impact on the Durham community.
Afterall, when you spend taxpayers’ monies, you should expect probing scrutiny to determine how much Return On Investment (ROI) taxpayers receive from such an investment.