Failed Federal Policies Trigger Local Activists Concern over Drugs and Crime Spur Neighborhood Groups to Come Up with New Answers to Old Problems

Article excerpt

SOMETHING distinctly apolitical but revolutionary is happening in communities and city neighborhoods around the United States. More and more neighbors are coming together in concerned and determined community groups.

Government entities are being by-passed, and so-called intractable social problems such as drugs, violence, and housing are being dealt with directly.

"What we are seeing is an uneven community-based movement slowly taking responsibility for local problems because the federal government in many of its social programs has been a failure," says Fernando Menendez, director of the Management and Community Development Institute at Tufts University near Boston.

Some social scientists say that despite costing billions of dollars over a generation, many federal social-service programs proved to be only well-meaning palliatives. Top-heavy with bureaucracy, the experts say, and prone to exclude local differences as marginally important, federal programs often surrounded social problems from the top, but had little follow-through or flexibility to remedy them at the bottom.

"There is no doubt that community people who are working to solve some of these problems are acting as if the federal government doesn't exist," says Roger Conner, executive director of the American Alliance for Rights & Responsibilities (AARR) in Washington, D.C. "The federal government is locked into a left and right debate," he says, "which is totally irrelevant now. Most community problem-solvers are nonideological because the problems are so severe."

Although driving drug dealers out of neighborhoods and stopping crime has been the recent impetus for lots of angry single-purpose groups taking back the streets, community-based groups have in fact been part of American communities for years. The difference now is that single and multipurpose nonprofit organizations are close to being the major force in direct problem-solving at the local level.

No national statistics exist, but some experts say that as much as 60 percent of the social-service budget of many county and local government agencies are managed now by nonprofit community organizations. A study by the Urban Institute found that as far back as 1979, 55 percent of governmental social services in the US were under contract with private or nonprofit organizations. Another study in New York state disclosed that between 1981 and 1987, employment in nonprofit organizations grew three times as fast as government employment.

"There are three kinds of organizations," says Mr. Menendez, "those that provide direct services, those that advocate on behalf of a cause, and those that get together to solve their own problems. There is a tremendous demand now for private and public dollars because there is a shift of responsibility without resources. …