The Power of Social Networks to Break the Cycle of Poverty

Throughout U.S. history, communities of poor people have left poverty. But none of these successes look like the public and philanthropic approaches we have relied on, nor the gravity-defying "up by your boot-straps" proposition.
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With more Americans than ever in poverty and with funding for social services dropping day by day, the nation's attention is rightly focused on scrutinizing the status quo. Some of us are also looking critically at our failed poverty-fighting efforts. As we consider what to do to move our nation forward, I suggest we also look back at the lessons of our past.

Throughout U.S. history, entire communities of poor people have left poverty. But remarkably, none of these successes look like the public and philanthropic approaches we have relied on in our 47-year war on poverty. Nor do they look like the gravity-defying "up by your boot-straps" proposition of those who seek to dismantle the safety net.

Learning from History

If we look at the histories of "making it in America" we will see common themes and practices among very different communities. Historically, if you were poor but working hard, you were able to get a leg up from family and friends who helped with places to stay, connections to jobs, loans, and investments in your start-up ventures. People knew they needed one another and that those succeeding had a responsibility to help those following.

In the mid-1800s, poor Irish families housed each other and followed one another into construction and police jobs. In the early 1900s, African Americans settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, bringing capital and resources into a growing community that had a strong ethic of community support -- thus facilitating the development of a strong black middle class. Many groups built mutual aid societies or fraternal organizations, where they would pay monthly dues into a fund that was available to any member in need. To this day, those that beat poverty are those that share their resources. Afghan refugees in Washington, D.C. followed each other into the taxi business via one Afghani man who created a successful business and hires many new arrivals. Today, many of these drivers are able to send their kids to college.

In all these examples, we see the central role of social networks -- shared knowledge and resources and most importantly, social support -- enabling entire communities to leave the instability of poverty together. This viral nature of social networks can again play a central role in rebuilding a strong America.

Social Networks at Work

The power of social networks has been documented in many public health efforts. A 2008 study from Harvard Medical School and UC San Diego discovered that successful smoking cessation occurs in social networks. A quitting smoker, they said, "might not realize that he is less like the heroic individual grasping his own boot straps and more like a single bird whose sudden left turn is just one speck in the larger flock." People are inherently social animals and they like to do what other people are doing.

Social networks have also been shown to be a critical key to disaster survival and recovery. Daniel Aldrich, a professor at Purdue University, found that after the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan is wasn't emergency services that saved the most people, it was neighbors. And in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that hit India, those who faired best were the ones with the deepest social connections, not the most financial capital.

For the past ten years I have been working with the Family Independence Initiative, a national anti-poverty innovation center that I founded. I have seen this social network principle in action over and over, in the groups of families with whom we work. Take Juan and Maria-Elena Zevalles's group, for example.

Juan and Maria-Elena lived with their four children in a tough part of Oakland. Like the other refugee families from the war in El Salvador, they had no savings. But one day they walked into the monthly meeting with their group (a cohort of six to eight families who already know each other), and announced that a Spanish-speaking real estate agent was going to help them to buy a house. So just as so many communities of friends have done before, their friends and neighbors helped with the down payment.

Unfortunately, they had fallen prey to a predatory lender, ending up with exorbitant mortgage payments. But these same friends came to the rescue, volunteering to re-tile, paint, and landscape the property, fixing it up so that the family could refinance with manageable payments.

Because the Zevalleses did something that the others felt couldn't be done, and succeeded even though they had made mistakes, all the other families in their cohort now felt they could take the same leap. Within a year and a half all five of the other families in their group had bought homes and stabilized. Even more compelling is that because of the strength of their social network, the expectations of their community outside of their cohort changed to a belief that you could and should strive to build assets in America.

Applying Lessons Today

So why have these historic models been forgotten? I believe that one important factor is the belief system that most of us have when it comes to poor people and poverty, regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum. Those on one side of the spectrum, the name callers, argue that poor families are "moochers," that they don't act responsibly and won't help one another, so why should anyone help them. Those on the other side of the spectrum argue that these populations are helpless victims and that we need professionals and institutions to help them.

In fact, both sides are promoting a stereotype that paints low-income families and their communities as incapable of leading their own change. And this constant barrage of negative messages has led many low-income people to lose hope for advancement.

Not all communities have succumbed to these negative stereotypes. Iu Mien refugees in Oakland, the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans, and the Yurok tribe in Northwest California are all examples of communities with strong social networks that lift each other up together. But even these communities face the same challenges of not being recognized for their efforts and thus having limited access to the supports they should to bring about lasting change.

There is a lot of initiative and resourcefulness in low-income communities. We don't need a new theory of change, a new program, or new evaluations. If we first focus on the existing strengths in families' social networks, not only will we achieve significant positive change, but we will set in motion a new movement where communities, rather than being recognized because they are the most needy, are rewarded for being resourceful.

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