by Rich Rubenstein on January 6, 2011 · 4 comments

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Persistent poverty in America is not only a national tragedy and an international scandal, it is both a cause and a result of an increasingly bitter and dangerous social conflict between mainstream Americans and the poor.  Resolving this conflict will take new ideas about social reform and new techniques of community-building.

To accomplish these purposes, a group of scholars and activists proposes to create a National Action Commission on Persistent Poverty and Social Conflict in the United States (NAC).  Composed of eminent citizens and aided by a professional staff, the NAC will hold hearings, facilitate community dialogues, and conduct research in a series of U.S. cities and rural locales over a period of 18 months, beginning in Chicago in the summer of 2011.  Its activities will influence the national conversation leading up to the elections of 2012 and the formulation of policy by the next presidential administration.  The NAC will deliver its final report to Congress, the Executive Branch, and relevant state and local agencies with two years after commencement of its activities.

For further details, read on.

Background: The Need for a National Action Commission

Over the last 40 years, an increasingly pernicious social conflict has been developing throughout the United States.  This conflict is tearing ominous holes in the social fabric of America that will require a concerted effort of nation-building to reconcile and repair.  Its effects are visible everywhere, yet many Americans do not realize that it exists.

The conflict to which we refer pits Americans who are able to make a decent living as investors, managers, or workers in relatively secure jobs against those condemned to live, sometimes for generations, in poverty-stricken urban neighborhoods and rural areas.  Persistent poverty is both a cause and a product of this social clash.  While the poor often act in ways that threaten and anger more comfortable Americans, the latter commonly blame them for their plight, advocate ineffective solutions, or deny that the problem exists.  Meanwhile, the continuing crisis in the employment, housing, and credit markets increases the general level of insecurity.  On both sides of this conflict, people feel pain, confusion, fear, and rage.  At all levels from the local to the national, the problem cries out for creative and effective resolution.

Since the early 1970s, vast sums of public and charitable monies have been invested, and major social, educational, and criminal justice initiatives have been launched, all with the intention of mitigating the crime and social disorder that cripple the ability of poverty-stricken neighborhoods to be vital, self-regulating social spaces.  These efforts have produced a few successes, but the overall record is disheartening and bleak.  Worse, compelling evidence now indicates that some of these initiatives – notably those that have combined to generate progressively higher incarceration rates for the young men and women living in these neighborhoods – actually serve to exacerbate this social conflict.

This calamitous, unintended consequence makes the challenges of building neighborhood capacity, mitigating persistent poverty, and insuring public safety all the more daunting and difficult.  It also raises the possibility of new, more destructive forms of conflict.  Particularly in regions where the illegal drug business is the employer of last resort, violence tends to spill over from impoverished to more affluent neighborhoods and across county, state, and even national boundaries. What is happening now in Mexico could well happen in many North American locales.  And filling the prisons exposes inmates to recruiting efforts by violent extremist groups.  The continuing weakness of the American economy makes the task of finding solutions – and finding them soon – all the more pressing.

America’s growing social crisis needs to be forthrightly, creatively, and collaboratively addressed.  To this end, we intend to help create a National Action Commission on Persistent Poverty and Social Conflict in the United States. The National Action Commission (NAC) would be the first public policy group in America to address the correlation between persistent poverty and accelerating social conflict, to investigate the consequences of failure to resolve the conflict, and to search for practical, effective methods of eliminating or mitigating its underlying causes.  Composed of 12-15 eminent public figures, scholars, and community activists, the NAC would have four major purposes:

(1) To call public attention to the problem of persistent poverty and social conflict and offer constructive ways of understanding and talking about it. By conducting problem-solving workshops and holding public hearings, the NAC will mobilize the insights of social scientists, neighborhood residents, poverty lawyers, criminologists, policy analysts, business and labor leaders, political and religious leaders, and foundation officers, as well as media specialists and communications experts to focus attention on the correlation between persistent poverty and social conflict.  The NAC will canvass significant ideas about its underlying causes and conditions; examine the political, economic, and cultural obstacles to resolving it; and explore strategies for effectively communicating these insights to the public at large.

(2) To investigate and publicize the likely consequences of failing to solve the problem. From corporate boardrooms and federal agencies to community organizations and religious groups, concern is growing that new forms of violent social conflict are emerging even now as a result of our failure to solve the problem of persistent poverty.  For example, America’s overpopulated prisons are becoming recruiting grounds for gangs and extremist groups.  What new forms of conflict can we expect next?  Expert witnesses will shed light on this important question.

(3) To formulate and launch collaboratively designed processes of discovery and action. To augment and focus its hearings and research, the NAC and its staff will facilitate a series of problem-solving workshops with key stakeholders. These workshops will be designed and facilitated to help participants discuss and resolve  their own conflicts, analyze what works or does not work in specific urban neighborhoods and rural areas, as well as envision and plan creative solutions to existing problems.  On the basis of these dialogues and workshops, the NAC will recommend promising methods for transforming the roots of conflict, building neighborhood capacity, enhancing public safety, and fighting persistent poverty.

(4) To recommend specific legislative and administrative measures aimed at dealing with the root causes of persistent poverty and poverty-related conflict. Based on the testimony presented in the hearings, and the action plans developed in problem-solving workshops, the Commission will make specific recommendations for creative alterations in local, state, and national policies relating to persistent poverty and social conflict.

Structure of the National Action Commission: Preliminary Ideas

The members of a Planning Committee have begun discussing the specific issues involved in organizing the National Action Commission and beginning its work in Chicago.  In addition to the signators listed below, they include Chester Hartman, research director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council; Washington, D.C. educator and economic development expert Bobby Austin; Johnny Mack, director of Realizing the Dream; international development expert Maneshka Eliatamby; former Illinois State Senator Alice Robinson Palmer; Henry English, president and CEO of the Illinois Black United Front; David Johnson, former mayor of Harvey, Illinois; Chicago community worker Shana Rubenstein; community development expert James M. Flagg; and William McNary, president of USAction.  Expressions of interest have also been received from Members of Congress Barbara Lee and Danny K. Davis; Patrice Willoughby, executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus; Prof. Sheldon Danziger, director of the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan; and Prof. Sandra Danziger, director of the Michigan Program on Poverty and Social Welfare Policy. The material below represents preliminary ideas to be presented to and discussed by members of the Planning Committee.

NAC members would participate on a part-time basis like the members of the former Iraq Study Group and similar bodies, meeting electronically at regular intervals and in person for short periods as appropriate. The Commission will be composed of renowned experts on poverty, social conflict, and relevant policy issues, as well as high-profile public figures capable of offering and promoting important ideas.

An executive director and staff would facilitate problem-solving workshops and assist in conducting hearings under the overall supervision of the NAC, and would carry out the day-to-day business of the NAC during its three-year lifetime.  The director (or co-directors) might be appointed to the ICAR and or IGP faculty in an appropriate capacity.  Staff functions could be performed by graduate students and alumni of both institutions or students/alumni of other relevant centers or institutes.

The Commission’s methods would include the collection and evaluation of scholarly research, but should also be extended to collecting and evaluating the testimony of live witnesses, as well as facilitating workshops involving members of relevant community organizations and public agencies.  The central method defining NAC operations will be that of problem-solving conflict analysis and resolution, which involves creating a framework in which parties in conflict can (a) participate in joint analysis of their problem, (b) envision effective new solutions, (c) cost out proposed problem-solving initiatives, and (d) plan and implement agreed-upon action programs.

Locales for hearings and workshops.  The Commission would begin its operations in Chicago in the fall of 2011.  Additional locales would include cities in other metropolitan regions (e.g., Washington, Atlanta, New Orleans, Oakland), as well as appropriate rural locations (e.g., Appalachia, the Southwest). A hearing taking testimony on European approaches to the issues would be held at the European Parliament in Brussels.

Products of the Commission’s work would include a set of recommendations and action projects focused on local communities, as well as reports presented publicly to the U.S. Congress and Executive Branch representatives in Washington, DC and appropriate city and state governments, with press conferences following.  If funding permits, a documentary film hosted by a well known media figure should be based on the community dialogues and hearings.  Additional products will include articles and op-eds, on-line presentations, proposals for further research, etc.

Next Steps and Timeline

A draft proposal to fund the NAC and its work will be submitted to relevant foundations and other potential donors by the end of January 2011.   During the winter months, the Committee will pursue these applications and determine the availability of specific Commission members and potential staffers.  As soon as funds are available, it will recruit the executive director and paid staff and confirm Commission appointments.  The NAC should begin its work in the summer of 2011with the aim of completing the Chicago hearings and presenting its first Report by the end of the year.  Hearings in other cities should continue throughout 2012 and conclude in 2013.  This will enable NAC activities to intersect the 2012 national and local election campaigns and to influence those taking office in 2012, as well as to inspire new or expanded programs at the community level. The NAC should present its final reports in 2013.

Contacts for Further Information

University Professor Richard E. Rubenstein

Professor James R. Price

Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution

George Mason University

Robert F. Rich

Professor and Director

The Institute of Government and Public Affairs

University of Illinois

Edward L. “Buzz” Palmer

Director, People Program

7800 S. Saginaw Ave.

Chicago, Illinois

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

john stern January 10, 2011 at 7:38 pm

How does a non-educator / activist get involved?


Rich Rubenstein January 13, 2011 at 10:25 pm

Those wanting to get involved should contact Rich Rubenstein directly at the email address noted in the post. Even before funds become available, there’s plenty to do.


Rich Rubenstein January 25, 2011 at 10:24 pm

John, you are now on the list of people interested in the National Action Commission. Expect
to hear from us about future activities.


Rich Rubenstein January 13, 2011 at 10:21 pm

I’m familiar with the tendency to see in a proposal (or in anything else) what one expects to see == in the case of this comment, an elitist conspiracy to screw the poor. I’m afraid that the writer jumps to a number of unsupported conclusions. In fact, the organizers of this project are entirely in sympathy with her perspective — which is why they want the NAC to come into existence.
Of course, poor people and women should play a prominent role. Of course, the Commission should aim at analyzing the structural failures that have produced the current monstrous division between haves and have-nots and recommending structural remedies, even if some are not immediately “politically feasible.” Everything depends on the quality of the NAC and its openness to ideas that are not the old top-down, paternalistic nostrums. I can guarantee that this Commission’s makeup will meet the approval of those, like the author of this comment, who want real change in the interests of the poor and near-poor.


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