[Shame] Poverty of principles

Why have several groups dedicated to public good ended up doing so badly?

Damon Hodge

March 6, 1971: Angered by massive welfare cuts, a group of poor black mothers marched into the house that Jay Sarno built chanting, “We are in Caesars Palace. We shall not be moved.” Though the demonstration was peaceable, published accounts report dozens of arrests. Chancy this was. An act of civil disobedience that not only interrupted the ka-ching of local capitalism but also dared to juxtapose opposite ends of America’s economic caste system—gamblers vs. welfare recipients. The protest inspired an epiphany in the women: Notoriety could be deployed for good.

Not long after the sit-in, a group of them procured federal funds and set up a day-care/teen center in an abandoned hotel in West Las Vegas. By 1980, Operation Life was a multimillion-dollar agency recognized by the federal Office of Economic Opportunity and credited with spurring investment in West Las Vegas. Federal funding cuts eventually led to its demise. In assessing local anti-poverty efforts, Dartmouth history professor Annalese Orleck wrote in a 2005 article that “there has not been a community-run poverty program like it since.”

How right she is.

The recent history of anti-poverty and social empowerment groups aimed at minorities is shameful. Internal strife. Mismanagement. Millions in missing funds. Alleged malfeasance. Services for tens of thousands (job-skills training, summer employment, ex-felon re-entry initiatives, food vouchers) jeopardized. So why can’t these groups get it right? Maybe they don’t recognize these recurring problems.

Plain bad intentions

They say experience is the best teacher. Willie Davis, who’s pastored in this city for a half century, had no prior experience running a halfway house for ex-felons. Yet he and his wife Emma, a convicted felon, applied for and received $423,000 in federal funds to do just that. The halfway house never opened, and the couple was indicted on charges of enriching themselves to the tune of $330,000. A judge spared him, but sentenced her to two years incarceration.


The people who received services from closed groups like the Economic Opportunity Board (once the big dog on the block with a $60 million budget), Nevada Business Services (job readiness and teen programming) and Fighting AIDS in our Community Today (F.A.C.T.), and image-battered ones like the Southern Nevada Workforce Investment Board (youth services) might not contest their effectiveness, but years of scathing state audits revealed sloppy record-keeping, managerial ineptitude and millions in mismanaged funds.

Internal politics

In connecting minority businesses with gaming companies, the Urban Chamber of Commerce accomplished more in three years than its predecessor did in 10. These days the chamber is mired in an internal struggle between the old guard and new guard, questions about its solvency and concerns about whether several million dollars from public and private sources to build a business center will ever be deployed. Roiling inside the local Urban League is a power struggle between its board and a subsidiary group bent on a coup.

More malfeasance

Several nonprofits that receive funds from the Workforce Investment Board have refused to tell city and county auditors how the money was spent. Approximately $2.1 million in EOB funds has never been found. Former Urban Chamber executive director Louis Overstreet claims in a lawsuit that county funds dedicated to building a business center are being used to pay chamber bills. Though no one’s gone to jail (yet), there’s an undeniable whiff of scandal, which blackens the eyes of all anti-poverty efforts.

“Our community can ill afford another hit based on the perception that we do not possess the integrity to properly administer public funds,” Overstreet wrote in April 12, 2007 letter to county community resources manager Doug Bell.

How right he is.

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