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More Money Does Not Make Better Programs

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By Lowell L. Kalapa
Last month public housing and law enforcement officials got together to confer on strategies that would help create safer and more decent communities in our state.

Although this conference was originally designed to find ways to eliminate drugs and other contraband from public housing projects, the planners of the conference decided that what they had been doing in this area wasn’t working and that it was time to find new ways to make the streets and playgrounds of our community safer for our kids.

The keynote speaker that was brought in had been the head of the Omaha Housing Authority for about nine years. During his tenure, the Omaha Housing Authority won national recognition for a number of innovative programs that basically turned the public housing projects of that city into places that are attractive and safe for its residents. Among the accomplishments of the Authority was the creation of a business that provides training and employment for its residents, reduced the absenteeism of the children in the housing projects from three days a month to one day a month, and created a foundation to assist residents of the public housing complex that is funded entirely by the residents.

What is remarkable is that many of these successful programs didn’t need new or more public funds. In fact, that was a major point the speaker made, that more money does not translate into better programs. In fact, he noted that in many cases the resources are readily available. The challenge is to find the right mix of strategies that will create a win-win-win situation for everyone involved.

For example, the speaker told how he was able to create this fund that helps the poor living in the housing projects. The Authority approached the cable television company that serviced the public housing project and suggested that instead of the cable company collecting their fees every month, that the housing authority would collect the cable fees along with the monthly rent that the residents had to pay. The cable company was more than eager to have just one check to collect rather than go after 2,500 subscribers.

In return, the cable company was willing to knock almost $11 off of the monthly fee since they didn’t have to do the paperwork nor did they have to hire bill collectors to go after the delinquent accounts. With this kind of offer, the residents of the housing project were more than willing to agree that the cable television fees would be paid with the monthly rent. This provided an incentive to residents who wanted to maintain their cable service to pay their rent.

The Authority then turned around to the residents and asked that since they were getting a discount on their cable fees, if they would give back one dollar that would go to a fund that would be used to help those families who might be in a pinch from time to time. The response was unanimous. So every month, the fund is larger by nearly $2,500. It was this fund that provided the capital to start a door and sash manufacturing business that provides training for residents of the public housing project. It was also a winning situation for the public housing authority which saved thousands of dollars on their purchases of doors and window frames that it used to purchase from a private vendor.

One of the most important points the former housing authority head made was that the types of programs and services that are provided in the Omaha housing projects are not creations of the Authority as much as they are responses to what the residents decided they wanted.

Too often, it is the bureaucrats and the “professionals” who decide what kind of services or what the needs are of the people they are supposed to serve. This is the “top-down” thinking that has pervaded government programs for years. Instead of telling people what is good for them, it is about time that government starts to listen what the people they are supposed to serve want from their government.

It is time for government to change its reasoning and logic from one that dictates to one that listens. Here in Hawaii the paternalistic form of government that has been the norm for the past forty years just is not working. It is time for government to change its mode of operation and start listening. Government may be pleasantly surprised that maybe we taxpayers don’t want or need all those services they think we need.

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