Some Funders Move Beyond the Culture War Over Family Stability and Poverty

Not so long ago, the link between family stability and poverty was a highly divisive issue. The right tended to fixate on family breakdown as the main driver of a culture of poverty, while the left stressed the structural factors that limit opportunity. That debate isn't over by any means, but many progressives have grown increasingly enthusiastic in recent years about anti-poverty efforts that focus on strengthening families and, in particular, the role of fathers. 

That's certainly true in parts of the funding community, and strong foundation support for the Center for Urban Families (CFUF) in Baltimore is a great example. Among other things, CFUFwhich describes itself as a "leading voice in the national conversation on responsible fatherhood"has an initiative called Couples Advancing Together, which seeks to ensure the success of couples with children by focusing both on strengthening relationships and employment assistance. Annie E. Casey is one funder that's supported such work. And, earlier this year, the Kellogg Foundation swung behind this approach in a big way, a $1.5 million grant to CFUF. 

These funds will work to enhance the "upward trajectory, two-generational stability and economic success" for low-income families. This new grant from Kellogg follows an earlier grant for $600,000 in 2014 for the purpose of improving outcomes for Baltimore children by helping parents connect to stable work and develop healthier relationships.

What's notable about Couples Advancing Together, and CFUF's work in general, is that it doesn't posit a false choice between family or economic factors in determining success, and the couples program Kellogg is supporting addresses both areas. That more comprehensive view of what it takes to succeed is likely one shared by most Americans—at least those not caught up in the culture war or partisan combat. 

Leaders on both sides of the political spectrum are fans of the CFUF approach. President Obama took a trip to the Center for Urban Families in 2013, and the Executive Director for CFUF, Joe Jones, sits on the President's Taskforce on Fatherhood and Healthy Families. Add to this the enthusiasm of the right-of-center Philanthropy Roundtable for CFUF, and some of the ideas being put forth by AEI president Arthur Brooks and other thoughtful conservatives, and you have the makings of a new chapter in the debate over poverty.

That said, a look at CFUF's funders in recent years turns up no notable conservative foundations. Beyond Casey and Kellogg, and a number of local funders and a few corporate foundations, CFUF has gotten some of its biggest support from the Open Society Foundations, which has long had a commitment to Baltimore. 

Why aren't any major conservative funders behind a group that's promoting family stability as a key solution to poverty? That's a good question. While conservative foundations spend a fortune on policy think tanks that push ideas like that, most of these funders—as far as we can tell—haven't waded very deeply into the hard work of operationalizing such ideas in communities. Hopefully that will change. 

CFUF, located only about a mile away from where Freddie Gray, Jr. was apprehended, is deeply embedded in the community. The organization has been serving the West Baltimore area since 1999 with a particular focus on African-American men and families—and how to empower men to be more involved in the lives of their children. 

Couples Advancing Together is a six-week course that brings couples together around the personal and financial challenges they face, and helps them share experiences and knowledge within cohort-based groups. Participants also work with staff to develop a family self-sufficiency plan to develop family and career goals and a family budget.  

CFUF's work on family and poverty is just one example of an array of efforts that look beyond an unproductive culture war to a more holistic view of helping people succeed. Other nonprofits and funders are also involved in this work, and our bet is that we'll see such initiatives keep growing. They make sense.