Can a Former-NFL Star Help Solve the Poverty Crisis in American Cities?
It’s summer in Dallas, TX, with August temperatures pushing passed 100-degrees. At a bus shelter near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and Malcom X Ave., just about a mile south of downtown, a dozen or so people huddle in the shade and wait. It is a sight familiar throughout the sprawling city, where the public transit system is notoriously inefficient. But in this neighborhood, one of Dallas’ poorest, long commutes represent more than a nuisance on a sweltering summer day. They are a barrier to access to good jobs, health care, political involvement, and educational or job training opportunities.
Although it sits at the center of one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions, Dallas is also one of the country’s poorest cities, with nearly 30 percent of residents earning less than $25,000 a year and one of the highest child poverty rates in the country. Given that, it should not have been a surprise when, in June, a large and well-funded anti-poverty non-profit – fronted by one of the city’s best-known celebrities – announced a new initiative that would attempt to address the problem of poverty in Dallas.
What was surprising, however, was the combination of this celebrity – former Dallas Cowboy Deion Sanders – and this non-profit: Stand Together, a charitable arm of the network of conservative organizations run by billionaires Charles and David Koch. Together, they are launching Prime 5, with a goal of raising $21 million over three years.
What made Sanders’ role in the effort surprising was that his latest foray into philanthropy was a spectacular and high-profile disaster. Sanders’ Prime Prep Academy charter school, located in Dallas, closed after experiencing a litany of problems, including, but not limited to theft, tax evasion, accusations of assault, poor academic ratings, and financial insolvency. Now he is partnering with an organization associated with some of the most controversial names in American politics, political donors who have spent hundreds of millions in support of candidates who opposed minimum wage increases and universal health care.
What, exactly, is Prime 5, and how does it propose to confront Dallas’ poverty problem?
Poverty in Dallas is significant, in part, because its root causes are fundamental, systematic, and historical. Like many other American cities, post-war suburban sprawl hollowed out the downtown employment core and incentivized the slow migration of the region’s economic center further north. That shrunk the city’s tax base, while making transportation a costly obstacle to employment opportunities. Combined with systematic disinvestment in historically segregated neighborhoods, white flight from public schools, and an inequitable distribution of services, Dallas has become the city with the highest rate of income inequality-by-neighborhood in the United States.
Prime 5 aims to confront these challenges with a strategy that Stand Together has employed around the country: finding non-profits it identifies as effective and scalable, and providing the resources and support to expand their impact. Stand Together certainly has the resources. Part of a collection of relatively new organizations known within the Koch network as the “well-being efforts,” the effort has expanded in just over a year to back nearly thirty non-profit organizations located across the country.
Evan Feinberg, Stand Together’s executive director (and the former head of Generation Opportunity, another Koch-funded group that organized youth opposition to the Affordable Care Act) says that Prime 5 will deploy essentially the same strategy.
“Prime 5 is a natural extension of Stand Together,” Feinberg says. “It is about identifying the key drivers of poverty and finding organizations that are delivering real meaningful results in any one of those areas.”
On its website, Prime 5 has outlined five areas of focus: debt, chronic unemployment, educational failure, family breakdown, and addiction, and it promises to identify – and support – organizations working to combat these challenges. Stand Together already backs a couple of non-profits in Dallas, including a group called Urban Specialists, which trains former gang members to mentor youths in high-risk schools and neighborhoods. It was Urban Specialists’ founder, Pastor Omar Jahwar, who introduced Sanders to Feinberg and the Stand Together network, and Feinberg says Stand Togethers’ work with Urban Specialists demonstrates the approach and efficacy of the model.
“Pastor Omar likes to say before we came along their meetings tended to resemble what a gang council looked like,” Feinberg says. “They are really effective at what they do, but their organizational structure and development was not their expertise. We helped develop their capabilities-based vision and approach, and gave them tools for the selection of talent, tools for human resources and practices, and decision-making tools.”
One common denominator in Stand Together’s work is its emphasis on business world best practices and its focus on programs that empower individuals to improve their own lives—themes echoed in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s new anti-poverty initiative. Ryan attended a conference on poverty in Dallas organized by Pastor Omar in 2016.
So where does Deion “Primetime” Sanders fit into all of this? Sanders has worked with Urban Specialists for nearly a decade, and he will now serve as the face of Prime 5, the pitchman the organization hopes will help raise the $21 million goal and serve as the group’s focal point in the Dallas community. Feinberg says Sanders’ history with Prime Prep is not a concern.
“I’ve gotten to know Deion over the last year, and it is clear that Deion has the heart for helping the least fortunate,” Feinberg says. “We have full faith and confidence [in him].”
Prime 5 is on its way to hitting its fundraising goals, Feinberg says, and Stand Together staff is on the ground in Dallas attempting to identify local non-profits with which to partner. One possible candidate is a local project called Cafe Momentum, which hires at-risk youth to run the floor and kitchen of a popular local restaurant. Café Momentum certainly checks a lot of the Stand Together boxes: providing job training, expanding the workforce, promoting boot-straps-style approach to economic mobility. But even Feinberg admits that solving some of the more fundamental issues that root Dallas’ poverty problem – like how to get a South Dallas resident to a good job in less than 90 minutes – may be more complicated.
“What’s most important about Stand Together’s model is we don’t believe we have answers to all the problems,” Feinberg says. “What we believe is that there are social entrepreneurs out there who get up every day and think about these problems. I would just say that we are on the lookout.”
Peter Simek is arts editor with D Magazine in Dallas, TX where he writes about a broad range of topics, from visual art and music to Dallas politics and urbanism.