Ford Foundation grant helps the Center for Social Development invest in the poor

Scholars of social development and social welfare have focused on something quite fundamental: Without any assets, it is very difficult for people to pull themselves up from poverty.

At the Center for Social Development (CSD) in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Michael Sherraden, Ph.D., and his faculty colleagues, staff, and graduate students are dedicating themselves to addressing the root causes of poverty and finding solutions. To this end, CSD has found a partner in the Ford Foundation, a philanthropic organization whose goals include asset building to create better societies.

Over the years, the Ford Foundation has generously supported the Center, the most recent being a $2.5 million grant.

The grant, which requires Washington University to match on a one-to-one basis, supports the creation of a permanent endowment for the CSD.

“The Ford Foundation has been very generous to many of the University’s programs and projects. This recent gift will enable the Center for Social Development to support groundbreaking work that will improve lives and lift communities. It is a gift that keeps giving many times over, and for that we are very grateful,” said Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton.

The central theory of asset building is to invest in people to increase participation in the economy and involvement in society. Sherraden’s idea — giving people individual development accounts (IDAs) to invest in life goals such as homes, education and businesses — is an asset building concept that is gaining wide support because it increases participation in the economy, strengthens communities, encourages citizenship and harmony, and creates more responsive and effective human service and community development organizations.

“We are giving people the tools they need to increase saving and investment, not just giving them income for consumption,” Sherraden said. He noted that the CSD is close to concluding a national research project spanning eight years and 13 sites throughout the country. Another large study now underway is testing savings accounts for children.

“Building equity among low-income people is an approach to poverty reduction that produces multiple benefits. The Center for Social Development shows governments how to invest in their people,” said Edward Lawlor, dean of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work and William E. Gordon Professor of Social Work. “Because of the great success of these research studies, asset building is having an impact on new policy. The idea of matching savings, which was unknown in public policy just a few years ago, is becoming more common,” he noted.

Indeed, CSD has participated in drafting legislation at both the state and federal levels; more than 35 states currently have some type of IDA policy. Internationally, the concept is spreading as well.

The Ford Foundation is an independent, non-profit, grant-making organization. For more than fifty years it has worked to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. Headquartered in New York, the Foundation also makes grants through offices in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Russia.

Since its inception, the Foundation has provided more than $12 billion in grants, projects and loans. Today, its Asset Building & Community Development program is a recognized leader in the field and provides support for efforts to build human, social, financial and environmental assets that enable people and their communities to expand opportunities and participate more effectively in their societies.

“The Ford Foundation grant gives us the resources to capitalize on our successes and keep up the momentum,” Sherraden said. “We are extremely grateful for their interest in CSD and support of our research.”