June 17, 2015

Inequality’s Long Shadow: Summer Hunger

There has been a lot of attention recently paid to the impact of growing economic inequality. A small elite have more. A large majority have less. The concentration of the vast majority of the nation’s wealth in the hands of a relative few takes a toll on everything from quality education to health care to affordable housing. For most Americans, inequality puts all of these further out of reach.

Inequality casts an even longer shadow. Our work at Share Our Strength has helped me see how inequality hampers the very social innovation needed to combat it.  

You need look no further than the app-loaded mobile device in your pocket to see countless of dazzling examples of innovation in computing, travel, communication, and media. These innovations have one thing in common: a robust market with the appetite and resources to pay for them. That’s what makes the creativity, risk, long hours, and upfront investment that are hallmarks of innovation worthwhile.

Who makes such investments? Venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, investment banks, and private-equity firms seeing a good idea that has the potential to scale.

Unfortunately, innovation does not work the same way for the social sector. Instead, market forces rarely come into play because many social programs serve people so economically marginalized that there are no financial incentives for serving them. There are countless program that work -- whether in maternal and child health, tutoring and mentoring, criminal justice, or other areas -- but that fail to benefit from the innovations that would help them work even better or scale up to meet the demand for them.

Take one example with which we have had deep experience: the summer meals program for low-income children at risk of hunger. It’s a critical lifeline for more than 21 million American children dependent on proven nutrition programs like school lunch and school breakfast during the school year. Participation, however, has languished at well under 4 million children since it began in 1975. That’s right, more than 80% of all of the kids the program was built for are not accessing or benefiting from it.

One formidable obstacle is that the law requires getting the kids to the meals (what the government calls “congregate feeding”) rather than allowing the meals to get to the kids. When the schools are closed, there are transportation issues and other logistical hurdles. Great efforts have been made to improve participation rates, but without policy innovation, the program is still not reaching most children. Far too many today are still faced with no alternative but to go hungry. This can have a massive effect on their health, growth, development, and ability to start the coming school year ready to learn.

If there was ever a deserving candidate for innovation, this is it. Creating more flexible ways for states to feed kids in the summertime would be a start, but that requires investing in demonstration programs with new rules, new logistics, new means of accessibility. In short, it means embracing change and the innovation that leads to it.

Why so little effort to invest in the innovation that would make the summer meals program more efficient and effective?  Mostly because it serves the poor, young, and voiceless and there are few incentives in the political or economic markets to innovate on their behalf.

Imagine nearly half a century passing with no improvements in our phones, TVs, cars, medical technology, building materials, entertainment, manufacturing, or transportation.  Our society wouldn’t stand for it. It hasn’t. But many social programs like summer meals languish as if stuck in a time warp.

Nonprofits need to allocate a portion of their own budgets to innovate, even with all of the risk that entails, and to share what they learn. (We try to do this at Share Our Strength through our Center on Best Practices.) Investment in innovations that may not pay off until the long term are never easy, but they are the hallmark of adaptation and growth necessary for success.

The long shadow that inequality casts on social innovation darkens the lives and future of millions of American children. America won’t be the strong nation it can and should be until we address it.

Bill Shore is the founder and chief executive of Share Our Strength.