Search for the word “recession” in any of our major newspapers, and you will find conflicting headlines about the state of our recovery. What is harder to find, however, is in-depth discussion of how the economic crisis has impacted the growing number of Americans living in poverty. To mark the three-year anniversary of the Open Society Foundations’ Special Fund for Poverty Alleviation, we have a special series of blogs highlighting how the fund has challenged America’s assumptions about poverty and worked to change the life chances for all Americans, not just some.
The series kicks off today with a piece by Chuck Sudetic about the Center for Employment Opportunities and will be followed by several others, including stories on YouthBuild, Gateway to College, and the Fair Food Network.
In April 2009, George Soros and his Open Society Foundations established the Special Fund for Poverty Alleviation, in response to the economic crisis to provide humanitarian aid and direct services. It was never meant to be a long-term project, but rather a time-limited investment to spark innovation ending this year.
Our most novel approach has been to unlock resources that would have languished without outside investment, and a key part of our strategy has been to make large scale investments in partnership with federal, state and local governments, and other funders.
The first grant by the Special Fund for Poverty Alleviation was a $35 million grant to the State of New York for a back-to-school program that—combined with $140 million of matching federal stimulus funds—gave $200 to each child on public assistance and food stamps in the state to start the school year with new school clothes, backpacks, pencils, books, and other supplies. It was one of the first private investments in the country during the crisis that unleashed federal stimulus funds and demonstrated to other private funders the opportunity for government and the private sector to work together to provide immediate relief to those in need.
Our work has also tapped the social safety net in new and more efficient ways to improve access to necessities like food, housing, childcare, transportation, and medical care to help people create more stability in their daily lives. Not satisfied with improving the means to basic survival needs, we also have supported efforts to increase opportunities to the jobs, education, and training needed to build better lives for individuals, their children, and their communities. For example, one program, Accelerating Opportunity, is a four-year, multi-funder initiative in four states (Kansas, Kentucky, Illinois, and North Carolina), which provides low-skilled adults with educational pathways that combine basic skills development with opportunities to earn postsecondary credentials in fields that lead to careers with family supporting wages.
We are keenly aware that opportunities to improve life outcomes must be accessible to all communities and have placed emphasis on youth who left school or were at risk of dropping out, immigrants, low-skilled individuals – including those with criminal records – low-income individuals, and communities of color.
When the fund closes at the end of this year, we will have seeded a wide range of new social investments that challenge existing system structures and bring new approaches and creative solutions to longstanding problems. We invite you to read about some of them.