President Obama's Council

On Poverty and Inequality

In 2015, President Barack Obama appointed a distinguished panel for initiating policy recommendations on poverty and inequality in America. It was a honor for me to be invited to serve on that panel. When the news came out, my parents got many unexpected calls -- since the news apparently ended up on the front-page of dozens of Indian newspapers. :)

At our first White House meeting, we did an introductory circle the question -- what gives you hope? Before I could think up something smart to say, :) it was already my turn to speak. And this is what spontaneously came to my mind, "Well, what gives me hope is love. What gives me hope is reading the NY Times story of how one person paid for coffee for the person behind her in line, and 226 people followed suit. Two hundred and twenty six people were voluntarily moved to pay it forward. What gives me hope is that life unfailingly responds to the advances of love."

As a council, we decided to work on three sub-committees. Some suggestions I presented on – together with fellow council member Preeta Bansal, someone who is no stranger to the government machinery and who is also an active ServiceSpace volunteer – turned into a unanimously approved sub-committee, internally titled 'Transforming Government' that Preeta chaired. Our sub-committee framed many ServiceSpace ideas and ideals (and other related concepts), in the context of the public sector -- designing from the lens of multiple forms of poverty and capital, cultivating peer to peer networks of front-line workers, building a broader set of metrics to measure value creation, and ultimately cultivating a shift from transaction to transformation and resources to relationships.

At the end of the year, White House issued a press release and release a 72 page paper with dozens of policy recommendations. In parallel, we were also working with various leaders within the government to implement these changes. Surely, not all of these recommendations will get implemented, but some certainly will. It's a delight to have been a small part of that collective ripple.

Below is the excerpt from my particular sub-committee.

Poverty and inequality cannot be solved by traditional bureaucratic solutions, which entail generalized approaches executed by traditional command-and-control structures to address social ills with simple, linear causes. Instead, poverty and inequality are complex problems with multiple and interlocking causes and effects.

Just as there are multiple forms of capital, there are multiple forms of poverty. Material poverty is often accompanied and compounded by scarcity of other forms of capital as well, including social and emotional capital. Individuals and families in poverty suffer not only from material deprivation, but they also experience disproportionate rates of stress, emotional harm and trauma, fractured relationships, and diminished social ties and networks. All these factors are exacerbated by discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and other characteristics. The cumulative impacts of these complexities impede the resiliency and ability of these individuals to recover from material poverty.

Solving the growing range of complex and interwoven problems related to poverty and inequality therefore requires more than material inputs alone and it requires more than government solutions alone, in that the government is one player – albeit a significant player – in a complex ecosystem. In order to effectively combat poverty, the government must not only bring to bear resources, but must also serve as a connector and enabler. This requires utilizing government-provided resources as seed capital for catalyzing additional social linkages and fortifying non-material inner assets within communities for sustainable external and internal transformation. This kind of skillful intervention requires a government that is less focused on top-down “delivery” of services and material inputs alone and one that is; more interconnected; built on deep relationships with the communities and individuals it serves; dedicated to supporting “bottom-up” growth of social ties and horizontal peer-to-peer support systems; committed to furthering responsive problem-solving within and among communities and individuals; and focused on more holistic solutions and holistic definitions of well-being and success.

At the macro level, this reorientation requires more interconnected public service systems that serve human needs across departmental and programmatic silos and measure results in more holistic and deeper ways. At the local and individual level, it requires creating tools and engagement methods that foster meaningful social connections and peer-to-peer networks of trust, shared information, and support within communities and among delivery agents of government programs. It also requires deep relationships in place of shallow transactions between frontline service professionals and those whom anti-poverty programs are meant to serve. Such relational, responsive strategies can involve personalized services, greater consistency of personnel, and a nurtured delivery staff with strong interpersonal and emotional awareness skills. This more holistic approach can also require coaching, mentoring, new forms of training and human engagement practices, and case-management methods that assist individuals and families in navigating fragmented social-services systems. If interactions are highly time-constrained and there is a high churn of frontline staff within services, relationships are likely to be transactional and perfunctory in nature. In order for deeper relationships to develop, with the potential to transform lives and strengthen communities, much greater consistency of nurtured personnel in frontline services is necessary.


We applaud the Administration for recognizing the emotional and psychic harms faced by communities living with poverty and for bringing a trauma lens to anti-poverty efforts. In particular, the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) are engaged in an ongoing partnership to address complex, interpersonal trauma and improve social-emotional health among children known to child welfare systems. SAMHSA also has led the way on trauma-informed care and community development efforts to address the emotional and social needs of trauma-exposed children, women, individuals, and communities.

As part of its anti-poverty strategy, we urge the Administration to continue to provide for and prioritize tools that support emotional healing, self-care, emotional resilience, stress reduction, self- and other-awareness, and healthy relationships for individuals,families, and communities, including mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy, reflective listening, reflective structured dialogue, and other appropriate strategies. We also urge the Administration to evaluate the effectiveness of specific programs incorporating such methods for individuals and families to further develop evidence-based assessments of effective, appropriate tools for care.


We can best actualize the vast potential of government to uplift individuals and communities by focusing on the moment of human interaction when the constituent comes face to face with the government. That moment can either be a transactional, bureaucratic exchange involving straight delivery of material benefits or the first of a series of transformational interactions that use government support to seed and support a dynamic, rich network of human relationships.

For government programs to move toward this transformational interaction, government must equip workers who interact with the public with skills to deliver uplifting interactions and build relationships that lead to sustainable change. Faith-based and neighborhood groups have long recognized that the efficacy of efforts to serve impacted population depends on the quality of the interaction and the relationship. Only if we invest in the non-material needs of frontline delivery agents will those agents in turn be able to serve the non-material needs of beneficiaries while also delivering material aid and supporting communities’ ability to support themselves. Those who work in service delivery should be empowered to engage in a positive way with communities, families, and individuals and be valued as crucial agents for change. They must be considered the most important interface with real people, with the potential to significantly transform a person’s experience with an anti-poverty program.

We recommend that the Administration take the following steps to improve self-care, emotional resilience, stress reduction, and self- and other-awareness, and to meet other nonmaterial needs for frontline workers.

• Provide support and tools for self-care. When one cares for oneself, one is able to care for others in a more sustainable, transformative way. The Administration should create and deploy curricula for frontline workers about mindfulness and other methods of self-care, including emotional resilience, stress reduction, self- and other-awareness, and emotional intelligence. The Administration should pilot efforts to deploy these curricula through coaching and training for those who are the face of poverty programs to the people those programs serve.

• Build cohorts of support among frontline workers. We applaud the Administration’s work being piloted through the Community Solutions Team within the Office of Management and Budget to develop cohorts of frontline delivery agents. Through training and building a community of practice among the cohort, the pilot aims to enable these professionals to form strong relationships with one another and turn to each other for support. Recognizing the importance of self-care for these workers, the Administration should equip these already-assembled cohorts with the curricula described above and additional tools and training in collective practices to help cohort members mentally and emotionally prepare themselves to be agents of transformation. The Administration should also assess the feasibility of expanding this pilot to the workers who staff every major anti-poverty program.

• Expand support cohorts beyond government employees. Because faith-based and community organizations play such an important role in the delivery of services to alleviate poverty, the Administration should expand its pilot efforts in building cohorts of frontline government workers to offer similar supports to those who disperse government-funded poverty aid through state, local, and tribal institutions and faith-based and community organizations.


In order to effectively combat poverty, the government must not only bring to bear resources, but also serve as a connector and enabler. This requires linking personnel within interconnected local ecosystems, including individuals, faith-based and community organizations, community leaders, service providers on the state and local level, and public institutions, to utilize government-provided resources as seed capital for catalyzing additional social linkages and fortifying non-material assets within communities. Technology and data science offer new opportunities to accomplish these goals by fostering deeper relationships and networks of support, both for frontline workers and the people and communities they serve. The Administration should take advantage of these new opportunities to help build social capital and the capacity of emerging networks on the ground by employing the following strategies:

• Fortify social networks among the beneficiaries of anti-poverty programs. Social networking platforms are beginning to provide low-income people and communities with a more reliable way to remain connected even when housing instability or unreliable telephone access disrupts traditional modes of communication. Recognizing the important role technology can and does play in fortifying social capital in communities impacted by economic poverty, the Administration should explore creating a peer-to-peer system of communication for those who receive material aid from the government to strengthen the social networks of beneficiaries of anti-poverty programs. The Administration should also seek out ways to leverage existing social networking platforms to do the same by piloting projects targeted toward specific communities of color that are tailored to the needs and strengths of those communities in particular.

• Develop peer-to-peer systems of support for frontline workers through shared success stories and interlinkages. In order to scale up the cohort support work outlined above, we recommend that the Office of Science & Technology Policy explore ways to use technology to develop and launch peer-to-peer systems of support for frontline workers. These technology solutions should increase the capacity of frontline workers to support each other day-to-day in becoming transformational agents for the populations and communities they serve through the means sharing stories of hope, renewal, and resilience, building social capital, and creating stronger inter linkages and connections.

• Conduct a social network analysis. Too often, community engagement by the government leans heavily on local figures with political connections or those who have established relationships with federally funded entities. This over-reliance on known actors locks out many important voices and overlooks robust networks and dynamic leaders in low-income communities. The Administration should replicate the project led by the Department of Homeland Security in Miami. In partnership with academia, the project provided capacity building and technical assistance for a number of low-income communities, specifically targeting communities of color, to identify, strengthen, and improve networks of relationships in those communities in planning and implementing anti-poverty efforts. This approach provides the Administration opportunities to better leverage the disciplines of data visualization and network science, which includes social network analysis, to help identify and amplify impacts of existing anti-poverty efforts.

• Improve integration of data systems. We applaud the Administration’s efforts to integrate administrative data systems across the country in order to increase awareness and uptake of supports aimed at helping individuals and families climb out of poverty. Guided by human-centered design and the insights of social and behavioral sciences, data systems can be improved if information related to an individual is linked across agencies and government funding streams to present a holistic picture of that individual’s needs and eligibility for public supports. In particular, we look forward to the day when an individual may learn in one instance of the full range of government services and benefits for which they and their family are eligible.


We will not succeed at ending poverty in this country if we continue to measure our programs by accounting metrics rather than human outcomes or if we assess our overall well-being simply on the basis of economic or financial capital. We recommend that the Administration convene a series of meetings to discuss more holistic ways to measure success and wellness in the implementation of anti-poverty programs nationwide.

• Develop and support more holistic indices of national well-being. GDP growth is important, but it is in no way a sufficient measurement of our nation’s wellness. We recommend that the Council of Economic Advisors, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Treasury Department host a conversation with Administration officials and domestic and international experts on the development of alternative performance metrics to discuss a broader indication of wellness on a national scale and the feasibility of publicly releasing holistic well-being indices in addition to GDP. In particular, this conversation should explore ways of measuring and reflecting multiple forms of capital, including economic, social, natural, informational, spiritual, cultural, and experiential among others, and inequalities of capital distribution that may be linked to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and other characteristics associated with persistent forms of discrimination in our country.

• Move grant metrics from transaction to transformation. We cannot succeed in eliminating poverty if we continue to incentivize governments and organizations providing services to low-income people and communities to focus simply on the number of transactions they complete rather than the overall effect their interventions have on the people they serve. The Administration should host a public roundtable conversation to discuss ways to integrate a transformative and relational approach into program and grant metrics. This discussion should include domestic and international experts rethinking how performance management systems can measure program impact and transformation and state and local stakeholders and community leaders who are doing anti-poverty work and focus on quality of outcome over quantity of transaction. Furthermore, this meeting should include a discussion of how we can ensure our programs are not overly focused on the science of accounting to the detriment of the art of human relations, which requires trust and real social connections.


Innovative governmental and non-governmental actors are incorporating a relational model in poverty alleviation work on an experimental basis. We recommend that the
Administration initiate a comprehensive review of actions that are already being taken across the United States and abroad to shift from transactional to transformational models in poverty alleviation. The following approaches should be considered:

• Host a public forum on best practices. Some state, local, and tribal governments have already begun to shift toward a relational model by changing the ways they set goals, measure progress, and coordinate efforts to the benefit of the populations they serve. At one such collaboration held annually by Alliance for Innovation, the “Transforming Local Government Conference,” state, local, and tribal governments share successful case studies of programs they have implemented to create a “systemic mindset for delivering services” and an ecosystem to maximize their greatest resource: their public servants. Many faith-based and community organizations, notably the Salvation Army, have also been spearheading efforts to move from transactional to transformational models. Sharing lessons learned from this work would encourage state, local, and tribal actors, along with faith-based and community organizations, to continue and expand efforts to revitalize low-income communities by focusing on relationships. The Administration should host a similar public forum to highlight the best practices and pioneering efforts to shift toward relational approaches in poverty alleviation programs and release a public record of lessons learned and best practices developed from that conversation.

• Conduct a review of what’s worked at the federal level. We applaud the Administration’s early leadership in investing in rigorous evaluation and disseminating the results. Part of this work has included: establishing and developing Offices of Evaluation; establishing and developing online clearinghouses based at agencies featuring evidence-based interventions; and establishing a “place-based” approach to federal programming and budgeting as an important first step toward leveraging federal investments in an integrated way, on a regional scale, and in a particular place to have the most transformative impact. We also laud the work done by the Department of Veterans Affairs in collaboration with government agencies, housing providers, and faith-based and community organizations to alleviate homelessness among our veterans by implementing a Housing First approach. This work yielded impressive results by recognizing the inseparable nature of the multiple problems facing those on the cusp of homelessness and by focusing on outcomes instead of outputs, and contributed significantly to eradicating homelessness in a few major cities. We believe this holistic and recipient-oriented approach can and should be applied to other government programs, and that the lessons learned through these efforts must not be lost with personnel change at the end of this Administration. We recommend that the Administration develop a report detailing what has worked in shifting the federal government towards a relational or holistic rather than transactional or domain-specific approach with low-income communities, highlighting that the approach encourages measuring outcomes rather than outputs and has a particular focus on the Housing First initiative and the Promise Zones Initiative. This report should also outline administrative, statutory, and logistical roadblocks these efforts encountered in moving away from a transaction focus, along with assessments of how those roadblocks were overcome or could be overcome in the future.

• Share stories of success. Too often, our communication about poverty programs conveys hopelessness and a sense that poverty can never truly be alleviated. However, major strides have been made during this Administration that have made life better for many low-income communities and Americans. We recommend that the Administration amplify the successes of Promise Zones, Housing First, and other relationship-focused programs that have benefited from this new approach by creating infographics of accomplishments and sharing success stories, reminding both those who deliver government services and the country as a whole that progress is possible if we focus less on transaction and more on transformation.

Related References: 

26 Parker, Imogen and Muir, Rick, 'Many to Many: How the Relational State will Transform Public Services,' and Dethman, Leigh,.Poverty in America a complex problem: Author blames personal and societal failures,.
27 AppleSeed Permaculture, .8 Forms of Capital,.
28 Domestic examples of these efforts include the Santa Monica.s Wellbeing Project as well as the Genuine Progress Indicator that was implemented in Maryland and Vermont, and is underway in Oregon and Utah. For examples of this work internationally, consider the Human Development Index (HDI) developed by the United Nations; the Human Kind Index from Scotland; the Social Progress Index spearheaded by Professor Michael Porter at the Harvard Business School along with other think tank, nonprofit, and academic leaders; the World Happiness Report, initially published by the Earth Institute and co-edited by the institute.s director, Jeffrey Sachs; and the Happy Planet Index by the New Economics Foundation. For an overview of alternative measures of societal well-being, see Lorenzo Fioramonti, .We Can't Eat GDP: Global Trends on Alternate Indicators. (August 22, 2015), , and Santa Monica Office of Well-Being, .A City of Wellbeing: The What, Why & How of Measuring Community Wellbeing. (December 2013).
29 Jindra, Michael and Jindra, Ines W, 'The Rise of Antipoverty Relational Work,'

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."