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Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty, Part 3

Posted on March 17, 2014 in Sector News

The business of addressing poverty.

by Carla Javits

Spurred by the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s announcement of a ‘war on poverty’ – there has been more public discourse on the topic than we’ve heard in years.  Predictably there have been a wide array of policy prescriptions with people across the spectrum from Senator Rubio to Maria Shriver weighing in.

My view: the unfinished business of the war on poverty is jobs. Specifically three issues:  creating more jobs, connecting jobs to people who need them, and wages and benefits that can take people out of poverty.

I’ve been surprised that in the discourse of how to reduce poverty, there’s been so little discussion of not only job creation and access to jobs, but also the promising developments happening outside of mainstream government and social service programs – some of it replicating what’s been done at greater scale outside of the U.S.

Since 1997, the focus of REDF’s work has been job creation and pathways to employment for those facing the greatest barriers to work. Founded by George R. Roberts, REDF developed a business approach to solve a social problem. That approach is social enterprise, businesses with a social purpose, that create jobs explicitly to employ people who are otherwise shut out. What we’ve learned in the past 16 years has been this – far more people want to work and are capable of it, they only need the opportunity to transition back into the workforce.

Bill O’Reilly summarized that assumption when he said,  “Every American can work hard, and if you do, you will make money. Every American can practice self-respect, and if you do, people will hire you. But if you are dishonest, embrace intoxicants, conceive children you can’t support, act in a crude, disrespectful way and generally believe that you are owed prosperity – poverty may well come knocking. And all the President’s men can’t prevent that.”

However, what O’Reilly fails to take into account  is not only how many of us are vulnerable to these problems – including many who are working and not living in poverty; but more importantly, he does not acknowledge that many people come to a point when they are ready to change, but face a job market that is quite unforgiving when that moment arrives – especially for those with few connections to other working people.

REDF has invested financially and provided business advice and consulting support to more than 50 social enterprises. As a result, 8,000 people in California who have been homeless or incarcerated, struggled with addiction or mental health illness have had a chance to work, and the social enterprise businesses have earned over $140 million in revenue. Private, for profit companies have procured goods and services from these companies helping them grow so they can employ more people, and have hired the most successful of the social enterprise graduates. Some have paired up with community colleges for skills-based training that has further increased their employability.

These kinds of social enterprises are a little known but powerful outgrowth of policies implemented in the 1960’s and 1970’s, leveraging public policies, private initiative and other resources to create jobs and revenue streams. They exist in many communities throughout the U.S., from Los Angeles to Chicago, Denver to New York, Indianapolis to Atlanta and represent a wide array of businesses including landscaping, screen printing, construction, manufacturing, and building maintenance to name a few. All told they employ at least 150,000 people and generate billions of dollars of revenue.

To see all the organizations in REDF’s portfolio, visit our Invest page or to see our national network of social enterprises visit our Lead page.

Several for-profit companies have also taken steps to expand the employment of young people and adults who would otherwise struggle to enter the workforce. They have stepped up to create job opportunities and work with nonprofit social enterprises, workforce development and alternative staffing service organizations to hire and support people who would otherwise be excluded due to their background or lack of experience.

These companies are motivated by multiple factors. First and foremost, they need prepared workers. They struggle with the costs, retention, and sourcing of qualified front-line staff. In addition, their top talent and many consumers increasingly demand a clear program of positive contributions to society in exchange for their loyalty. Lastly, those companies operating in sectors that are publicly regulated have to respond to the demands of officials and communities for local hiring.

If we are to show that the wealthiest engine of democracy and capitalism in the world can offer a good life – the American Dream – to all Americans, it is time to get real and focus on the economic growth, job creation, and support to working people that will really deliver the opportunity to work to everyone who needs it and wants it; and the income and access that offers a decent life above the poverty level to those who do work.

There is still a long way to go before the ‘win/win’ approach creates a sufficient number of jobs, and opportunities for those who need them the most.  With conservative Ron Unz backing an initiative to boost the minimum wage in California, an economy that is finally starting to create jobs again, and companies seeking to have a positive impact on their communities – now is the time. When we get serious, poverty loses, people win.

I am looking forward to continuing this debate and check back soon to read other leaders in the field write about creating jobs and pathways into the workforce:  cautionary tales and insights from the War on Poverty through the Great Recession to today.

If you missed reading the first 2 parts of this blog series, you can find them here.

Carla Javits is President and CEO of REDF. Since its founding in 1997 by George R. Roberts of KKR, REDF has helped thousands of people in California get jobs by providing funding, business expertise and access to networks to social enterprises—"double bottom line" businesses that create jobs in order to employ individuals facing the greatest barriers to employment.


Reinventing Business One Trip at a Time: Bruce Poon Tip talks about his bestselling book, Looptail

Posted on March 14, 2014 in Sector News

Elisa Birnbaum speaks with pioneering social entrepreneur Bruce Poon Tip about his new book, Looptail: How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business. In the interview, the founder of award-winning G Adventures and bestselling author candidly shares his company's road to success, its varied challenges and the lessons learned from running a business that elegantly balances financial success with greater purpose.

I first interviewed Bruce Poon Tip last year at the Toronto headquarters of his brainchild, G Adventures. Though I had been avidly following the evolution of his company for years, impressed by its unique social entrepreneurial approach and much-celebrated corporate culture, after that meetup (you can view the video interview here) I was a believer.

For one thing, here was a guy who not only talked the talk but walked it too. Sure, G Adventures has established itself as the world’s most successful adventure travel company—with operations in over 100 countries and serving more than 100,000 inspired travelers a year. But it goes beyond that.

The company also carved an impressive reputation for its dedication to sustainable tourism and community development. In 2003, armed with a belief in the value of giving back, Poon Tip founded the Planterra Foundation, with a mission to raise funds for communities where G Adventures operates. The foundation today boasts close to 40 projects worldwide - supporting communities in the areas of education, healthcare, environment and social development.

Here’s the other thing I enjoyed about my meeting with Poon Tip: he was honest, candid and forthright. Essentially, he was everything that most interview subjects aren't. And it was refreshing. Thankfully, that’s exactly the voice I found in his new bestselling book, Looptail. And it pays off. Part memoir, part business book and even part self-help, this story is a riveting, heartwarming and inspirational account of one man’s entrepreneurial journey. It’s no surprise that Inc. Magazine named it a “Best 2013 Book for Entrepreneurs” and that it debuted on the New York Times and Globe and Mail’s bestsellers lists, at #4 and #1 respectively.

The book traces a veritable roller-coaster ride of success - from the company’s launch and very first steps (thanks, in part, to a generous  couple, the details of which you’ll have to read for yourself), to its varied challenges and bold decision-making that led G Adventures to where it sits today, an award-winning company with an endless list of accolades. Along the way, we meet a host of intriguing characters like the Dalai Lama – and my personal favourite, Richard Gere — and we learn about entrepreneurship from a unique, thought-provoking and highly entertaining vantage point.

Certain themes permeate the book, including Poon Tip's intense focus on branding, employee engagement and corporate culture. And then there’s his unabashed commitment to social responsibility, a commitment he adopted far before social entrepreneurship became the trendy, hot-button bandwagon upon which others cling to in spades today.  

Not only did he pioneer a socially responsibility approach to business, Poon Tip achieved something many social entrepreneurs struggle with: profitability. The founder of G Adventure makes no apologies for that profit motive - just not at the expense of purpose. Sure, there were struggles, there were dark days, and even a dark year or two. But Poon Tip figured out a way to make it work - tremendously well, proving himself a model for others.

It’s hard to imagine a company today that doesn't incorporate social responsibility into their mission. For those looking how to do it right, look no further than Looptail.


You talk in the book about "Disruptive Innovation". How important is that approach to your success and would you advise other entrepreneurs to adopt it too?

For me, it’s everything. It’s not necessarily for everyone but I’m in a very crowded space so for me the only way is to be disruptive. For example, last year we launched tours to Australia for the first time. For years we’d been asked to do tours in Australia. There are a thousand companies running tours up and down the coast. But we couldn’t just run tours like everyone else and we never thought we could run our brand promise in the developed world, without getting heavily criticized.

So it took us years to develop Australia in ways we could do it differently. We started relationships with Aboriginal communities, we stay at a sheep farm, do spear fishing, we listen to stories from the elders, all kinds of different things. We don’t do buses – we take trains, boats, do everything fun on the way up the coast. And our tours just exploded down there. We went from zero to 5000 passengers overnight.

For us, everything we do has a disruptive component to it. But, again, it’s not for everyone. There are different types of entrepreneurs. Very few create new industries, new products. Lots of entrepreneurs own franchises. The entrepreneur that puts new products in front of people that they never thought of before, are very rare and even fewer in Canada – you can count them on one hand.

You say you have a “change-or-die” mentality and speak a lot about the need to embrace change. In fact, every five years or so you reinvent your company in some way. Can you explain the importance of change?

Yes every five years we go through change. I’m in my fifth year cycle now – my staff is very scared [he laughs]; I’m making tons of changes here. I think you have to feel it. You can’t push it. It has to feel organic and it depends on your industry too. You always have to stay sharp in my industry, you have to stay nimble, no matter how big you get. To me there’s huge value and currency in being nimble as an organization.

We continue to grow at a rapid pace of 40%, huge numbers now. But you hit plateaus at times and you have to restructure the business to stay nimble. If I had the same structure in 2000 or 2005, we would be half the staff. We could still be a great company, a very profitable and exciting company. But we’ve been a startup for 23 years. That's what people find amazing. We’ve had double-digit growth with our business for 23 years. And that comes with pain. A little bit of pain for gain.

So can I assume there’s lot of change on the horizon now? For an outsider looking in, you seem to be at the height of your business success. What more do you want from this company?

Yes, tons. I can’t become complacent. I’m terrible [laughs]. We don’t fire people. I just dictate what I need and people are either onboard or not. There’s great stuff going on. It’s very exciting times. I love it but you have to ask them! [the staff]. Right now we are restructuring. We are growing so quickly. We are a $250 million organization so we’re not tiny. We have over two thousand employees. We have to work harder to be quick to market – and still be able to be nimble.

If you work in a business, you know the times you’re stalling because you’re not getting good communication, these things happen over time when going through growth phases. But when you have five years of double-digit growth every year and you don’t take stock and re-evaluate how you restructure your business, to ensure you’re prepared for the next level, you start putting bandaids on things. And that becomes very ineffective.

What are some new initiatives you're undertaking?

Last year we launched a relationship with IDB [Inter-Development American Bank] and we’re now developing all those projects, with Planeterra doing a lot of international development. At the same time, we’ve been called on to consult with different countries on sustainability. We’ve been down to Haiti and are talking to Colombia on how to build tourism in their region. These are all unchartered waters, and it’s rare air right now because there’s never been a company that looked like us.

Speaking of IDB, many in the social enterprise sector talk about the need for cross-sectoral collaboration. You had some frustrating experiences working with NGOs in the past. What did your collaborative experience with IDB recently teach you and vice versa?

It’s definitely different. The IDB and MIF [Multilateral Investment Fund] are twin dinosaurs. We have way more people than needed to work [on these projects] and there’s so much reporting that needs to be done back to them. If I had to figure it out myself, I’d go mental. And it wouldn’t be worth it; time is money for us. We just view things differently.

But now that we have Planterra, their mandate can be more entrepreneurial, yet still very innovative. We’re learning a ton from each other. IDB loves us and thinks we’re “cute” and we can teach each other so much. They see how successful private enterprise can be - they’re studying it so much and it will have a positive impact on their view of working with the private sector.

2007 was a defining year for you. You faced some major challenges and had to step up with bold decision-making. What did you learn about yourself that year and how did it impact your next steps?

As an entrepreneur, you hit very high highs and very low lows. 1997, for instance, was very low low and I had some high highs in between. Going through the Explorer [referring to the sinking of their tour cruise ship, the M/S Explorer off the coast of Antarctica, an incident Poon Tip referred to in the book as “our company’s greatest test”] and then getting a $100-millon offer to buy the company, for me reawakened my urgency and also gave me a new purpose.

It allowed me to create my new purpose, of why I wanted to be here. When I was dead broke and we were bankrupt and someone offered me a million dollars in 1997 [an offer he received toward the beginning of the company’s history], it seemed like I could live off it forever, considering at the time I was living in a garage, bankrupt, couldn’t pay my bills etc. But 2007 was that kind of awakening when I knew I had to really redefine my purpose.

In the book I talk about the summer of despair - that was a very long summer. I had come to the conclusion that I still had enough gas in the tank but it was a very cathartic, difficult time. Entrepreneurs are notoriously self-centered, they’re egomaniacs. Not me but others [laughs]. So to self-evaluate like that is very difficult. And very painful. Entrepreneurs don't like to admit mistakes.

But all of that just came together for me, it was a turning point. I took all the stuff I learned about happiness, purpose and a more spiritual side to life. I mean, business to me up until 1997 was considered cold, black and white, right and wrong and unemotional. I was taught that from the very beginning, that that's what business is, and I made myself out to be that person.

In the book you share the story of a couple whose generosity helped save your company, at the very beginning. Explain your ongoing relationship with "paying it forward" and Karma.

I came into Karma early. I always felt guided by what I was doing and knew I had to listen to my heart more. My company shouldn’t exist with that act of kindness. They gave me substituted Karma. I was grateful to two people but didn’t look at it more holistically, that I can create it and that it could be a perpetually good energy. The real turning point was 2007 when I changed everything. It took me a decade to incorporate it all. To absorb it, have my own experiences, stabilize my company and then realize that this is my destiny.

About the authors:

Elisa Birnbaum is the co-founder of SEE Change Magazine, and works as a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant. She is also the president of Elle Communications.


The Social Impact Bond: Potential and pitfalls

Posted on February 18, 2014 in Sector News

by Jonathan Wade

Shifting the risk of social value creation to private investors

There is currently much discussion about the Social Impact Bond as an innovative tool to generate financing for social enterprises. Anyone who has tried to start a social enterprise—a business that exists for the primary purpose of addressing a social need—knows that it is challenging to find the financial resources to start operations.

This financing challenge is even more acute in nonprofit organizations, where there may be little collateral, nobody to guarantee a loan, and little, if any, operational reserves.

What is it?

The Social Impact Bond mechanism originated in the UK, where the social enterprise sector is arguably 10 to 15 years ahead of the sector in Canada.  A similar model has been replicated in the US (also referred to as a “pay for success” or “payment-by-results” bond) and now the Social Impact Bond is part of the Canadian discussion, particularly at policy and government circles.

In short, the Social Impact Bond is a mechanism that allows for three parties to become involved in financing innovative solutions to social needs or social problems: the government, private investors and the social service sector. The mechanism also requires a fourth party, an independent intermediary, to choreograph the process and to select the service provider (in the UK model) to undertake the work.

The Need

Government is expected to address social concerns, but is challenged by the high cost and complexity of successful local or regional programming. Private investors are growing increasingly interested in responsible investing where they can get a financial return on their investment by supporting worthwhile causes. Social service delivery actors, typically nonprofits corporations and the subset of those which are registered charities, work diligently to address social concerns and social causes; yet they are frequently underfunded, in spite of often proven good work.

Traditionally, government has addressed their social service mandate, in part through direct funding to nonprofits and charities. This is a current expense for governments in a time of dwindling budgets, and there appears to be a concern that granted public funds may not be measurably changing the social landscape.

The Social Impact Bond, by comparison, invites private investors to provide the money for the social service agencies to do their work and the government then promises to pay the investors back, with interest accrued, if the service agencies are able to demonstrate measurable changes in a social problem.

The intermediary organization is an independent body that collects the money from investors, makes and tracks the investment in the community agencies, confirms (or denies) that the money is in fact making a measurable difference, and then documents the social change to allow the government to pay back the investor as appropriate.

What is good about Social Impact Bonds:

  1. Social service programs receive necessary operational money up front.
  2. It forces social service agencies to proactively measure and communicate their social impact. The whole concept relies on effectively measuring social change.
  3. Current budgets of government do not expand, even though social service delivery expands. Indeed, the government pays out nothing until the social change is achieved and measured.
  4. Private investors get an inside look at social problems and an opportunity to become involved in the innovative solutions that are being developed in the social economy.
  5. New money (from the private sector) comes into the social service sector in the short run.
  6. The Social Impact Bond is tied directly to social return on investment, rather than mobilizing resources for the limited number of social enterprises that will offer only a financial return on investment.

What is problematic about Social Impact Bonds:

  1. The cost to the public purse, though deferred, of any given successful social program will be larger than a traditional grant, as it must include the fixed costs of the intermediary, the financial ROI to the investor (typically 5-9% pro-rated to reflect the degree of social change realized), AND the return of the initial investment to the investor.
  2. Private investors shoulder all the financial risk, and yet have limited power to govern the social service agency/collective work. Indeed, the “failed” projects end up saving the government money, and punish the private investor.
  3. In Canada we have only just started to develop and understand the tools for measuring social impact, which means the key to this whole investment mechanism relies on an imperfect understanding of success.
  4. The social service agency gets paid to do the work, but they need to prove causality in typically very complex social challenges (See a 2013 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on the challenges of evaluating Social Impact Bonds). Factors beyond the scope of the investment are very likely to affect the social outcome. Moreover, having a control group—that is to say an identical population of people in need but who don’t get the intervention—is both challenging, and ethically questionable.
  5. There may be an incentive to invest in easy to measure short-term social outcomes rather than intractable or complex social concerns. For example, this mechanism might favorably fund a project to create housing units for low income families in a given year, but is unlikely to invest in education projects that take 10 years to address fundamental causes of poverty in the first place.
  6. The “model” upon which this mechanism is based has not yet been proven to work in either the UK or the US. There are less than 20 active “deals” initiated since 2010 worldwide to serve as guidance and there are no definitive conclusions about the effectiveness of this mechanism in achieving improved social outcomes.

For more on Social Impact Bonds, read:

Realizing Value Through Social Impact Bonds

In Conversation with Antony Bugg-Levine

Goldman Sachs, hedge fund billionaire back $27M social impact bond

About the author:

Jonathan Wade is a social enterprise sector developer based in Ottawa, working with the Centre for Innovative Social Enterprise Development (CISED). He works directly with social entrepreneurs, co-ops, and nonprofits on social enterprise business development, from ideation to planning to design and launch, including advising on social finance options. All opinions in this article are his own, and are based upon his experience with a diverse client base of social entrepreneurs. 


Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty, Part 2

Posted on February 17, 2014 in Sector News

Moving forward in the debate on the War on Poverty and the key issue – Jobs

by Carla Javits

Earlier this week I wrote about the War on Poverty, my father’s legacy in that fight, and its outcomes.  Now let’s look forward and address what I think is at the heart of this issue to bring about lasting change and prosperity – jobs.

While tax incentives and income transfer programs can help, people across the political spectrum agree that government transfer programs alone will not and cannot eliminate poverty – especially for working age adults and their children.

Jobs are central. The unfinished business of the war on poverty is bringing more people into the workforce and positioning them for advancement.  Perhaps it seems obvious, but just to put a fine point on it – the poverty rate for full-time workers is just 3 percent, and for those not working, it is 23 percent.

On this 50th anniversary of the launch of the War on Poverty, the policy prescriptions that I’ve heard so far both from politically liberal and conservative commentators seem stale with little focus on job growth, and access to jobs for those who have been left out.

We know that the pressures of globalization and technology have been in lockstep with political gridlock making it harder to create jobs and increase wages in the US. The result has been an hourglass economy with high paid jobs for the technologically savvy and highly educated, low paid jobs in service occupations, and fewer jobs in the middle. Employment discrimination also continues to factor in to disproportionately high rates of unemployment particularly among young men of color.

But in the context of our values as Americans we acclaim the importance of work, and expect people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  Most of us would like to see jobs and work as the primary safety net, with programs and entitlements in place for those who are really unable to work.  Opposition to government supports is often fueled by suspicions that they offer a disincentive to work.

Private sector innovation.  The current debate about how to address poverty seems to give short shrift to job creation, and ignores almost completely the innovation occurring in the private sector – the engine of jobs – which is increasingly motivated by pressure from employees and consumers to mobilize core resources to address community problems. The private sector is doing that with a focus on job creation and entrepreneurship, including development of social enterprises and other businesses that intentionally open their doors to people who have struggled to get or keep jobs in the past, impact investing to spur business and job growth, and a resurgence of interest and reform in work-oriented technical education programs; not to mention significant investments in small businesses and workforce development by Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase, to mention just two institutions.

Job creation.  So how can we make jobs the go-to safety net?  Well, first we need more jobs – unemployment is just too high right now.  An initiative focused on job creation for low wage workers is making the case.  Here you can listen to Al Fuller, CEO of Integrated Packaging Corporation, making the case for what he’s done to create good jobs as an entrepreneur who grew up in the inner city.  He is only one of the businesses that participate in an initiative showing that, “Companies can provide great jobs and strengthen their business. The Hitachi Foundationhas been garnering proof of this by looking at firms across the country that do just that.”

Good jobs.  Once people are working – particularly full time — their wages and benefits must allow them to purchase the essentials of life, and move out of poverty. This is an issue the business community as corporate citizen must grapple with. Many successful companies make the business case that profits and efficiency increases when front line workers get the pay and benefits and opportunities for advancement that move people out of poverty. Others need to follow them.

Mobility. The chance for advancement, for economic mobility, is at the heart of not only a poverty-fighting strategy, but also the American Dream.  Research indicates that while people in the middle of the income spectrum do have significant opportunities to move up, as do some of those born poor, almost half of those who start in the lowest percentile of income remain stuck there and a full 70% remain below the middle all of their lives. 

People in deepest poverty. There continues to be little focus on people who face the most daunting challenges. About 20 million people in the US live in ‘deep poverty,’ living on less than half of the poverty rate, with the majority not working at all in a given year.  They face daunting problems from histories of homelessness and incarceration to addiction, mental illness and other disabilities. Taxpayers, families, communities bear enormous costs for long-term unemployment.

The work that REDF has done for 16 years to create jobs through social enterprises that hire these individuals has demonstrated definitively that most of them want to and are capable of working if given a chance.

I would challenge our elected officials, business leaders, philanthropic institutions and nonprofits to refocus on the single most important issue that impacts not only the War on Poverty, but ultimately the core of the American Dream, and our expectations for a decent society — the creation of jobs with prospects for advancement, decent wages and benefits, and the inclusion in our workforce of all people who are able to work, allowing people to fight their own battle against poverty.

What results has REDF’s had in job creation? How has private industry started to get involved? What are some of the challenges of job creation? Check back for the final chapter in this series from me.  If you didn’t read the first chapter, you can find it here.  And I look forward to seeing your comments below.

REDF has helped thousands of people in California get jobs by providing funding, business expertise and access to networks to social enterprises—"double bottom line" businesses that create jobs in order to employ individuals facing the greatest barriers to employment.

Carla Javits is President and CEO of REDF. Since its founding in 1997 by George R. Roberts of KKR, REDF has helped thousands of people in California get jobs by providing funding, business expertise and access to networks to social enterprises—"double bottom line" businesses that create jobs in order to employ individuals facing the greatest barriers to employment.


Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty, Part 1

Posted on January 15, 2014 in Sector News

Who won – poverty or the people?

by Carla Javits

While we have victories to celebrate, and battles that were won, the War on Poverty is clearly unfinished business. Recent evidence indicates that casualties would have been far worse had we never launched the effort at all, because the arsenal of programs initiated in the 1960’s prevented many people from falling into or remaining in dire poverty. And it is clear that many individuals benefited from opportunities they would not otherwise have had. However, while the poverty needle moved significantly for the elderly, it has barely budged for working age adults and their children. With about 46 million people poor in the US – including 16 million children (21% of all children, and an incredible 38% of all African American children) to cite just one particularly tragic statistic, it is worth attending to those who question what has been accomplished and seek new answers.

I have a particularly personal interest because my father, who grew up in poverty, had the privilege of contributing to the passage of much of the federal legislation and programs that comprised the original War on Poverty. As a Liberal Republican US Congressman and Senator, my father cared deeply about alleviating poverty, and believed passionately that work and education were key to doing so. He was committed throughout decades in Congress to minimizing the role of government and maximizing that of the private sector in offering opportunity to ‘leveling the playing field’ for those otherwise left out.

As I reflect on my father’s legacy and this pivotal time in our history it’s been instructive to review the debates of the 1960’s that he participated in. There was a battle in Congress and within the Administration between people who wanted to focus on work as the central strategy and those who wanted a broader approach. For those focused on work, they considered whether or not to target people living in the deepest poverty or instead to get some ‘quick wins’ for those who could get ahead with modest support. The path forward was to build partnerships with the private sector, incentives and stimulus to spur job creation, and workforce training programs. The President and those that wanted a broader set of strategies won, creating an array of government programs from education to health care, to housing. Community organizing, and the engagement of people from low income communities were the centerpiece. Anti-discrimination efforts were part of both agendas.

When President Johnson commandeered Sargent Shriver to become General of the War on Poverty, his message to Congress less than two months after the assassination of President Kennedy reflected the full panoply of options, “It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won.” He went on to make the economic case. “We cannot afford to lose it. One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.”

Sargent Shriver himself leaned toward “opportunity,” rather than government programs and entitlements. He said that the effort “does not try to make men good (sic – he forgot to mention the women – sign of the times) – 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.”

The result of the policies enacted was the expansion of legal efforts to challenge discrimination, Medicare and Medicaid, and the launch of numerous and varied nonprofit organizations, including our national infrastructure of community action agencies and community development corporations (CDCs), Head Start programs and Job Corps, and volunteer service programs. Many of these still exist today. The CDC’s in particular were a focus of my father’s efforts who got them funded by working across partisan lines with then Senator Robert Kennedy, resulting in significant philanthropic support and private-public partnerships that ultimately delivered millions of affordable homes, although the hope at the time was that they would also contribute in other ways to economic development. In the 1970’s, he also helped to create a national network through incentives for government procurement (now called AbilityOne) – that has led to the employment of hundreds of thousands of people with severe disabilities in addition to fighting for civil rights, Medicaid, and Medicare.

So who really won – poverty or the people? Given that 15% of the US population is living in poverty now (versus 19% when the War on Poverty began), House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said last week that this War ‘failed miserably.’ He also called for new approaches that work better, and suggested that we measure success not by the number of people enrolled in programs, but by the numbers of people that get out of poverty.

While the search for new solutions is clearly worthwhile, recent evidence contradicts the premise that the War on Poverty had no impact – even according to Congressman Ryan’s yardstick. A new Columbia University study indicates that the safety net programs established as part of the War on Poverty have saved millions of Americans from falling into poverty over the past four decades.

The Census Bureau came to a similar conclusion, adopting a new measure in 2010 that takes fuller account than in the past of nutrition and housing payments, means-tested transfers and social insurance programs, as well as taxes. The Columbia study’s authors used this approach to recalculate poverty figures for the period of 1967-2010 and concluded:

Poverty rates would have actually increased slightly over the time period, from 27% to nearly 29%. But after accounting for taxes and transfers, poverty falls by approximately 40%, from 26% to 16%.

According to the Columbia study, welfare programs have also made a significant dent in child poverty and in “deep poverty,” the 5% or so of the population earning under 50% of the poverty line – a figure that would have been triple or quadruple without the War on Poverty programs. We also know that there has been a huge decline in poverty among the elderly as a result of Social Security and Medicare.

However, for working age adults and children – after trillions of dollars spent – poverty has barely budged, despite closing the racial poverty gap – African American and Hispanic families still face disproportionately high poverty rates, and economic mobility is not a reality or very limited for most of those born poor. Arguably, strong headwinds unanticipated in the 1960’s – technological change and globalization, among other factors, have suppressed progress. And, moving in the wrong direction, most recent private income and asset gains have gone vastly disproportionately to those at the top of the income ladder.

What does this mean for addressing the ongoing challenges around poverty in the US? What is most essential in reducing poverty? How should our leaders refocus to have the greatest impact not only on the War on Poverty, but ultimately the core of the American Dream? The next blog chapter will answer some of these questions. I look forward to reading your thoughts on this debate. I encourage you to comment below. 

This article was original published by REDF on January 8th, 2014 - view it here.

Since 1997, REDF, a California-based nonprofit, has led the pioneering effort to create jobs and employment opportunities for people facing the greatest barriers to work—like young people who’ve dropped out of school, people who’ve been in prison or homeless, and those who live with mental health disabilities. REDF believes the opportunity to work should be available to everyone, everywhere. They know the power jobs can have in transforming lives and communities.


Seeing the Forest for the Tees: The Link Between Your Wardrobe and the World's Forests

Posted on January 14, 2014 in Sector News

by Nicole Rycroft

I went shopping with a friend at Christmas who was searching for a gift for her 15 year old niece. Neither of us think of shopping as a recreational activity (I’d rather be surfing or at a matinee!), but there we were in a mall in the midst of the pre-Christmas rush, trying our best to imagine what would delight a teenage girl.

As my friend flipped through racks of colourful blouses and trendy skirts, I felt like the Grinch - stealing her gift choices away. Knowing the hidden costs behind that appealing 40% off price tag makes keeping quiet almost impossible.

When the label says rayon, viscose or modal my mind jumps to the endangered forests felled to produce that fibre. That’s because my organization, Canopy, recently launched a campaign to steer leading clothing brands away from using endangered forests to make fabrics.

Our questions are: “Is that skirt made from the beautiful tropical rainforests of Indonesia, Canada’s boreal forest or coastal temperate rainforests? Is that gorgeous shirt coming from vital habitat for the critically endangered orangutans and Sumatran tigers, or the home of threatened herds of caribou and millions of North American songbirds?” All too often, the answer is yes.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Past Successes

Canopy has been working for over 10 years to improve logging industry practices and protect ancient forests by changing the purchasing practices of some of the forest industry’s largest customers. Best known for greening the Harry Potter book series globally, we have worked successfully with large book publishers, newspapers, magazines, printers and leading global brands, helping these businesses avoid fibre from endangered forests, increase their use of recycled fibre and kick-start the development of innovative environmental papers.

We’ve harnessed the power of the marketplace to help transform forestry on the ground. Several of our influential 700-plus partner companies have intervened directly with suppliers, supporting innovative forward-thinking forest conservation solutions, such as the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements in B.C. and the protection of Quebec’s boreal gem, the Broadback Forest.

But the more we changed the purchasing habits of major forest product customers and the more virgin fibre use declined, the greater the effort by the forest industry to diversify into new product lines. Dissolving pulp, used to manufacture cellulose fibre for clothing, is the latest trend in the forestry sector and the growth projections for this product are alarming.

The world’s forests are being mowed down at a staggering rate to produce fabric. Up to 100 million trees a year go into the manufacture of pulp for fabric and that number is on the rise. Put end to end, those trees would circle the equator 10 times.

Our Latest Focus: Fashion

Luckily, innovation is at the heart of our work. Canopy’s latest campaign “Canopy Style: Fashion Loved by Forest” was launched this fall, setting out to revolutionize the purchasing practices of major clothing brands and leading designers to help save forests.

With Canopy’s support, progressive clothing brands and designers have seen the forest through the trees and are starting to take action. We are now actively working with early champions such as EILEEN FISHER, Quiksilver, prAna, Patagonia and lululemon athletica to begin grappling with the problem and developing solutions. Fourteen progressive designers, including Prophetik, Nicole Bridger, Milk, Anna de Shalla and others have also joined the campaign.

These clothing sector leaders have committed to track their supply chain, remove fibre sourced from ancient and endangered forests and work with Canopy to explore and develop solutions including recycled viscose and the potential for using agricultural residue fibers such as flax. And change is in the wind as other major global brands take notice, begin assessing their own supply chains, and start to develop endangered forest policies.

The fall of ancient forests for fabric

The fact that ancient forests are falling to produce fabric has come as a shock to many designers and their customers. It’s a wasteful, chemically intensive and inefficient process that requires three tonnes of forest fibre to produce one tonne of dissolved pulp. This pulp slurry is then frequently shipped from the sourcing region, such as Indonesian Rainforests or Canada’s boreal, to viscose mills in China and Indonesia where it is converted into filaments, and then spun into fabrics. The fabric then heads to the manufacturing plant to be dyed and fashioned into the clothing that makes its way into our favourite boutiques and local shopping malls.

The dissolving pulp industry has an ambitious expansion agenda over the coming decades. If we act now, however, we can head off that massive growth before it becomes entrenched. Currently, forest-based fabrics comprise only five percent of the total fabric industry. Once apparel industry leaders start insisting their fibre not be sourced from ancient and endangered forests, their suppliers will be mobilized to find better alternatives.

Good for forests, good for business

The coming evolution is not just good for species and forest health – it’s good for business. Ethical clothing sales have jumped dramatically in recent years and there are multiple reputational capital benefits to be gained by clothing companies that proactively position their brands on social issues. As clothing controversies make the news, investors are increasingly requiring full reporting on supply chain risk.

Shareholders want to know if the company they are backing is going to make headlines, lose social license and suffer from plunging stock value. Traceability and transparency are taking on greater importance in ensuring continued company health and brand reputation as all of us – the ‘customers’ - are asking more and more questions about the where our clothing comes from.

The conscientious brands now working with Canopy are bringing their environmental ethics to the fore and committing to track their supply chain, shift away from fibre sourced from the planet’s endangered forests and start brokering eco-solutions. Given that innovation is at the core of the fashion industry and on display every season, we’re confident we can work out a better way…with your help.

What you can do

Ask questions when you shop. Ask your favourite brands and designers where their fabric comes from and if it contains endangered forest fibre. Ask the sales assistant when you try on your next pair of black pants. They may not know, but the more we ask the more word gets back to the clothing companies that people are seeking answers, scrutinizing brands and requiring more socially and environmentally responsible practices.

Support the designers, fashion and clothing brands who are already taking action. Encourage your favourite retailers, brands and designers to become part of the solution. Spread the word with the hashtag #FollowTheThread. And sign the CanopyStyle pledge at

Together, we can ensure that being stylish doesn’t cost the earth.

About the author:

Nicole Rycroft is the Founder and Executive Director of Canopy, an Ashoka Fellow and an Alan Thomas Fellow 


Originally posted December 26th, 2013, by Elisa Birnbaum, in SEE Change Magazine.



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