How we can help the poor help themselves, and our economy, Selvaggio-style


Joe Selvaggio is a celebrated former priest who has spent nearly half a century helping poor folks become more productive and less poor, lately through the MicroGrants program and before that, Project for Pride in Living.

He also recently authored one of the most inspiring and articulate cases I’ve ever seen for investing in the human potential of our large and growing underclass. His powerful essay appeared in the Star Tribune on Sunday Nov. 18, and was headlined “Think of the poor as part of the solution: They’re a source of economic growth. That’s why we can afford to help them.”

Selvaggio is the soul of charity but he’s not a naive do-gooder who sees poor folks as purely victims. And he argues that they ultimately are responsible for grabbing on and pulling up on the hands that are offered from public and non-profit workforce training providers. And he also concludes that governments need to invest more in broad-based self-sufficiency and productivity efforts instead of just focusing on direct aid and entitlements. Citing the success of the Harlem Children’s Zone and other non-profits such as Twin Cities Rise! and Summit Academy OIC, Selvaggio notes:

“Entitlements seem to be anathema to the right, left and center. But job-training programs are politically acceptable to left, right and center. The private nonprofit sector has proven that they work, but philanthropy can’t do it alone. Now it’s time for government to put muscle behind them…Change the paradigm and think of the poor as locked in a cocoon, ready to develop into a productive creator of wealth.”

Our policy-makers in Minnesota need to find what’s working best in in preparing and moving chronically unemployed or under-employed folks in to the decent jobs that are being created in our new economy and right in their communities, whether it’s health-care, transportation, financial industries, or construction. Growth & Justice is beginning a project that will illuminate those models. And our legislators and other elected officials must be ready and willing to invest in them. Because this really is an investment that pays off for everybody.