AS NEWLY SERIOUS TALK of a "long hot summer" takes us back to the days of guns and butter, it may be useful to ask whatever became of the War on Poverty.
As a late enlistee in the lower ranks of that war, I think I may have something of an answer. The government seems to have done what it does best. It has turned good intentions and plenty of money into bureaucracy and plenty of paper.
During the past decade and a half, the Congress has appropriated billions of dollars to fight poverty in one form or another. I would find the numbers (which must exist someplace in Washington), but I have more urgent business.
The nature of this business is indicative of the problem.
I am, in my own little way, part of the problem. I am a grantwriter for a community organization, El Centro de la Raza, in Seattle. The main reason I don't have time to find how much the government's spent on the poverty war is that I have three weeks to turn out a 200-page proposal for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
I have beside me another proposal that I've written: a seven-page application pending with the Boeing Good Neighbor Fund. After nearly a year writing grants for El Centro and other community organizations, I've found the corporations ask the basic journalistic questions, with a few modifications: who, what, why, where, when, how and how much? The government, on the other hand, asks for "neighborhood demographic profiles," "revitalization strategies," "demonstratable capacities," and the like.
The instructions to the HUD grant request for proposal ("RFP" to those in the know) run to 80 pages, single spaced. This does not include application forms, but only the instructions for the forms and accompanying, novel-length narrative. The Boeing RFP, on the other hand, comes with a single page of instructions.
The HUD program distributes federal funds meant for community revitalization. Reduced to archaic plain English, this usually means funding to renovate the physical blight of deteriorating inner cities.
El Centro serves such a community, the Beacon Hill and Rainier Valley neighborhoods of Seattle, areas which during the past decade have been filling with Spanish-speaking people, most of whom have been put out of work by machines in the rich argicultural valleys of Eastern Washington. The machines, for the most part, have been developed with federal grants at California universities, but that's another line in the grant game.
During the years since the beginning of the War on Poverty, several thousand out-of-work farm laborers have come to Seattle, many with little or no knowledge of English, lacking many of the job skills necessary for city work. They come over the mountains in dusty cars, families and possessions crammed inside, with little or no money. This migration has been nationwide, and especially evident in the West. Eighty-five percent of the nation's Hispanics now live in urban areas. What Reconstruction did for blacks, mechanization has done for Chicanos.
By 1972, with Seattle area's Hispanic population nearing 20,000, community leaders sat down in an abandoned school building and refused to leave until the city signed a lease for it at $1 a year. They got the building, without functioning heat or plumbing, and set to work renovating it with their own hands. Eight years later, El Centro houses programs which teach English and other basic academic subjects, provide vocational training in several trades, low-cost meals and child care, among other things.
With the demand for its services accelerating daily, the staff of El Centro decided to spend its time and energy providing direct services. Paper shuffling and poverty pimping were to be kept to an absolute minimum.
The staff of El Centro soon found that it had a problem. With a central office staff of four (a director, assistant, accountant and secretary) managing a half-dozen programs funded from two-dozen sources, no one had time to write grant proposals to keep the doors open. No one had time to search out the statistics which describe everyday reality in terms bureaucrats can understand. No one had time to make up the flow charts, or to count the number of people served each day, week, month and fiscal year. It may have been the most bottom-heavy organization in the country.
To deal with the big sugar daddy in Washington, it was evident that El Centro needed some bureaucracy of its own. Enter the grant writer, followed by the director of planning and (hopefully soon) a couple of people who will compile the numbers we need to keep the government't auditors happy.
I was hired at $700 a month, not much, but still tax money. I am paid by the Community Services Administration, which was called the Office for Economic Opportunity in headier days. The money was procured with a minimum of paperwork, just the time of 150 community people who took a couple of hours out to sit down and make a lot of noise in the district director's office.
Soon after assuming the job, I was handed an RFP from HUD, offering community revitalization money. El Centro has an annex which we figured would make an ideal child-care center. El Centro now has a day-care program, the only one in Seattle with an English and Spanish pre-school curriculum. The center consistently has a lengthy waiting list, despite the fact that the children are housed in the basement of the old school. The basement is crowded, damp and dreary, especially during Seattle's long, wet winters. Children sometimes catch cold from the bare cement floor.
Still, the waiting list grows. The school curriculum is excellent, and appealing to parents who want to preserve their chilrens' Hispanic heritage while acquainting them with children from many other cultures. Parents also enjoy the fee schedule, which is adjusted according to ability to pay -- especially those parents new in the city who are taking vocational trades or other educational programs elsewhere in the building.
The house the day-care center, the annex needed renovation estimated at $100,000, which would help the neighborhood by putting unemployed small contractors and other community residents to work The basement floor that gave childen colds also is wel suited for vocational training using heavy machinery. El Centro has some of the machiery, and plenty of community demand for such programs, but no place to put them unti the day-care center is moved.
It all seemed to simple -- tell HUD we needed $80,000 to renovate the annex, do it, and move in. I turned to the inch-thick stack of application forms, and looked for a way to tell HUD what needed to be done in not less than 100 pages, beginning with "location and history of the neighborhood," "economic and demographic profile of the neighborhood (with appropriate graphs, charts and tables), "needs and problems assessment for the neighborhood," and the like. These three sections comprised the first part of a ten-part narrative.
It was to be followed (according to HUD's instructions) by a history of the organization, including a chart of all the program money that El Centro had raised and spent in eight years, organizational charts, a stack of budgets for El Centro as a whole, documented proof that the organizational goals and objectives were compatable with the perceived needs of the neighborhood, et cetera. I was to concoct and describe a "neighborhood revitalization strategy" and then, only then, was I allowed to mention the specific reason that the proposal was being submitted.
The proposal was like a cross between a master's thesis and a gigantic freshman essay exam. I bloated my language as best I could, and came up with 80 pages, including six of "assurances," by which El Centro promised to adhere to 4,000 words worth of federal laws, rules, regulations and inclinations.
We lugged the five required copies to the post office, and mailed them off to that other Washington, where someone opened our package and five other people read it. Someone else scored it, awarding points on a ten-page form in several dozen abstract categories. The scores were rated and ranked, and letters typed to the winners and losers. This single program attracted more than 700 applications, averaging about 200 pages each, a stack I estimated to be 25 feet high. Laid end to end, the pages would have stretched 28 miles.
The score sheet came back to me in the mail, and it indicated that our proposal was worthy, that we were decent bunch of folks serving righteous poor -- but that we hadn't provided enough detail and redundancy to get the keys to the kitty. There was hope -- another granting cycle was just around the proverbial corner, and we were invited to try again. Someone in Washington at that very moment was drafting a brand new 80-page set of instructions.
Clearly, I had to do better. I had to fatten the proposal to at least 200 pages, which seemed to be roughly the breaking point between the winners and losers. Through a friend, I got a look at the only proposal from Seattle that had won a grant.
It was 250 pages long, and a state-of-the-art piece of grantsmanship. It had won $41,000 for a community garden, but included several dozen pages on housing conditions. The proposal was a feast of numbers, quantifying the uncountable. It forecast the weight of plums that would grow on the garden's trees for five years, and contained fold-out flow charts projecting the growth of cabbage.
Inspired, this monkey sat back down at his typewriter to spin epic tales of demonstratable capability, invoking the demons of demography and the god of representative accountability, commiting linguacide on the English language. I winced as I created "multi-component processes" and "comprehensive plans for the development and renovation of human capabilities" which would "aid in Hispanics' orientation to urbanization."
That's what has become of the War on Poverty -- an army of paper pushers (myself included) who scribble as the intensity of poverty, helped along by inflation, continues to deepen. If a private may address generals with such brashness, I respectfully suggest that nothing much will change until, and unless, some of the money and talent gets out of the fortress and i into the foxholes.