George W. Bush is often described as a man who believes in limited government, personal responsibility, strong families and local initiative. It’s too early to forecast with precision how these values will translate into the Bush administration’s domestic policy priorities. However, one development in particular during the first two months of the Bush administration, combined with a major policy victory under the outgoing Clinton administration and 106th Congress, suggests that the community development industry may see considerable growth opportunities during the coming years.
One clear priority of Bush’s domestic policy agenda is expanding the role faith-based organizations play in helping people to break free from poverty. On January 29, 2001, he issued an executive order to launch the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Five Cabinet departments, including HUD, will house the corresponding offices or centers for this initiative.
Community development advocates and practitioners would be well served to capitalize on Bush’s interest in this area by making the case that locally based nonprofit community development organizations, both faith-based and non-sectarian, have been effective and productive agents for change in low-income urban and rural areas for decades, with strong, results-oriented track records. Although the White House has not yet announced specifics about funding or which organizations will be covered under this initiative, the fact that the administration has articulated a strong interest in poverty and lower-income communities is a welcome sign; it presents an important opportunity for community development practitioners to describe and showcase our work and accomplishments. The rhetoric of the President’s faith-based approach has so far stressed – above all else – the importance of local initiative, concrete outcomes and positive and measurable impacts on people and communities. This is the currency of the nonprofit community development world.
Another example of a hopeful new opportunity emerged in December from a broad-based, bipartisan partnership between the White House and the Congressional Republican leadership; in particular, Speaker Dennis Hastert. The Community Renewal Tax Relief Act of 2000, while approved under the previous administration, will be implemented by the Bush administration and includes a 40 percent expansion and targeting of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and creation of the New Markets Tax Credit, intended to stimulate $15 billion in private investment in underserved communities.
By building on the considerable progress that nonprofit community development organizations have already achieved in revitalizing many of our most troubled neighborhoods, this legislation holds the promise of greatly accelerating a phenomenon that is recently taking root: the return of the market economy to poor inner city and rural communities. The full potential of the New Markets legislation will be realized only if it is used to enhance and expand the efforts and achievements of the vast network of locally based community development organizations that is currently in place.
The message of the community development industry to the new administration should be clear: through the community development movement, America has learned a historic lesson about how to help communities rebuild themselves from abandonment, neglect, underinvestment and decay. Given Bush’s stated intent to address the problems of poverty, he has at his disposal a proven and effective approach for achieving his goals, if he chooses to make use of it. At the very least, as his domestic agenda begins to take shape, we in the community development world need to work together to strongly communicate a message of collective accomplishment to our political leaders in Washington and to the nation at large.