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Monday, November 14, 2011

Filling Gaps and Building Communities of Support

A Benevolent Blog Guest Blog

By Professor Scott W. Allard, School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, Research Associate of the Population Research Center at NORC and the University of Chicago, Research Affiliate of the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, Research Affiliate of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Member of the Board of Directors of Benevolent.

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As poverty and unemployment rates remain at historically high levels, the growing needs of working poor families and job-seekers shine a harsh light on the gaps in today’s safety net. These gaps should be challenging us to think of new ways of connecting those who can help with those in need. Benevolent.net offers a promising new way to direct giving to the unmet needs of low-income families -- needs that too often fall through the gaps in the safety net and consequently make it difficult to find or keep a job.

Government programs like food stamps or Medicaid often come to mind when we think of assistance for the poor. Yet these public programs cover only some of the material, transportation, or health needs of low-income families striving to make it. For example, lack of access to a reliable car or to public transit is a significant barrier to many of the working poor – but there is precious little transportation assistance available. Many poor job-seekers may need vision care or dental work in order to secure a steady, good-paying job, but these basic health needs often are not covered by public assistance programs.

There is other help, but it also can be spotty and insufficient. In some cases, social service programs and organizations provide critical assistance to the poor through employment services, adult education, child care, emergency assistance, and counseling services. Delivered often through community-based nonprofits, these social services are central to helping many low-income families achieve stability. The problem is that social service programs are coping with substantial cuts in public and philanthropic support. And what support there is doesn’t always reach those with the greatest need. In my 2009 book, Out of Reach, I found that residents of high-poverty neighborhoods have about half as much access to social service providers as do people who live in more affluent neighborhoods.

It can be bitterly hard for families living on the edge of stability to find help in times of need. Most turn to family, friends, or trusted members of their social networks for help with needs that safety-net programs do not or cannot address.

Ordinary people who want to help often don’t know how to. We know there are people around us who are having a hard time, but many of our neighbors silently struggle to find work, feed their families, or keep their homes. We find ourselves asking - what can we do?

How can the nonprofit sector do a better job of filling critical gaps in the safety net? And, on the other hand, how can we give private philanthropists, who don’t have unlimited means, opportunities to make a real social impact?

I believe Benevolent can be the answer to these questions. By providing an online portal that connects donors to community-based organizations, caseworkers, and ultimately to families who need help in a time of crisis, Benevolent helps to weave a connective web of people to fill in critical gaps in the safety net. Benevolent ensures that we reach those most in need at the moment of their need, and ensures that the donors’ support has real, visible impact. By providing a place for people to interact and share with each other, Benevolent helps us become a community of support. In short, Benevolent is a platform for helping us to realize how we would like to receive help and give help.

- Scott W. Allard, Benevolent Board of Directors