The Traditional Needs-Driven Path
The ‘needs-driven path’ produces images of problematic and deficient communities populated by needy and problematic and deficient people. These negative images, which can be conceived as a kind of mental ‘map’ of the community often convey part of the truth about the actual conditions of a troubled community. But they are not regard as part of the truth; they are regarded as the whole truth.
Once accepted as the whole truth about troubled communities, this ‘needs’ map determines how problems are to be addressed through deficiency-oriented policies and programs. Public, private and nonprofit human service systems, often supported by university research and foundation funding, translate the programs into local activities that teach people the nature and extent of their problems, and the value of services as the answer to their problems. As a result, many lower income and troubled communities are now environments of service where behaviors are affected because residents come to believe that their well being depends upon being a client. They begin to see themselves as people with special needs that can only be met by outsiders. They become consumers of services, with no incentive to be producers. Consumers of services focus vast amounts of creativity and intelligence on the survival-motivated challenge of outwitting the ‘system’ or on finding ways – in the informal or even illegal economy – to bypass the system entirely.
There is nothing natural or inevitable about the process that leads to the creation of client communities. In fact, it is important to note how little power local neighborhood residents have to affect the pervasive nature of the deficiency model, mainly because a number of society’ s most influential institutions have themselves developed a stake in maintaining that focus. For example, much of the social science research produced by universities is designed to collect and analyze data about problems. Much of the funding directed to lower income communities by foundations and government is based on the problem-oriented data collected in ‘needs surveys’.
The consequences for residents can be is devastating when the deficiency orientation, represented by the ‘needs map’, constitutes the only guide to lower income communities. One of the most tragic consequences is that residents themselves begin to accept the needs map as the only guide to the reality of their lives. They think of themselves and their neighbors as fundamentally deficient, victims incapable of taking charge of their lives and of their community’s future. And, other consequences flow as well from the power of the needs map. For example:
* Viewing a community as a nearly endless list of problems and needs leads directly to the much lamented fragmentation of efforts to provide solutions. It also denies the basic community wisdom which regards problems as tightly intertwined, as symptoms in fact of the breakdown of a community’s own problem-solving capacities.
* Targeting resources based on the needs map directs funding not to residents but to service providers, a consequence not always either planned for or effective.
* Making resources available on the basis of the needs map can have negative effects on the nature of local community leadership. If, for example, one measure of effective leadership is the ability to attract resources, then local leaders are, in effect, being forced to denigrate their neighbors and their community by highlighting their problems and deficiencies, and by ignoring their capacities and strengths.
* Providing resources on the basis of the needs map underlines the perception that only outside experts can provide real help. Therefore, the relationships that count most for local residents are no longer those inside the community, those neighbor-to-neighbor links of mutual support and problem solving. Rather, the most important relationships are those that involve the expert, the social worker, the health provider, the funder. Once again, the glue that binds communities together is weakened.
* Reliance on the needs map as the exclusive guide to resource gathering virtually ensures the inevitable deepening of the cycle of dependence: problems must always be worse than last year, or more intractable than other communities, if funding is to be renewed.
* At best, reliance on the needs maps as the sole policy guide will ensure a maintenance and survival strategy targeted at isolated individual clients, not a development plan that can involve the energies of an entire community.
* Because the needs-based strategy can guarantee only survival, and can never lead to serious change or community development, this orientation must be regarded as one of the major causes of the sense of hopelessness that pervades discussions about the future of low income communities.