A model for bipartisan support
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Seven years ago, the federal government launched an experiment to encourage private sector investment in local solutions to address some of our country’s most stubborn social challenges. The idea could have easily been mistaken for something devised by Ayn Rand – as public funds flowed only to projects that first won the support of private funders who were willing to put up two-thirds of the total costs. Once this private funding was in place, and the project was seen as replicable in other regions around the country, the federal government would provide the remaining third of the project costs, while also demanding rigorous transparency, auditing, and evaluation of the overall effort. The program was the Obama-era Social Innovation Fund (SIF), which was eliminated in the current federal budget, despite having demonstrated the rare Washington trifecta of being bipartisan, highly-effective and cost-efficient.

For a president who views himself as a savvy negotiator, the de-funding of a program that literally yields a 2:1 return on the federal government’s investment is a short-sighted choice, and a poor business decision. Over the program’s seven year history, $352 million in federal funding leveraged over $700 million in local and private funds. Unfortunately, within the first months of the Trump administration the program was gutted as part of the dramatic reduction of funding to the federal Corporation for National and Community Service.

For a Congress looking to better leverage public funding and preserve high-impact programs affecting a broad set of localities and regions, and serving a diverse swath of Americans, it would be wise to fight to extend the SIF, or reshape the core concepts into something new.

The original concept for SIF brought together lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who recognized the program’s smart investment strategy. The program was able to create impact at scale and showed a direct return on investment in communities as diverse as Tulsa, Okla.; Kansas City, Mo.; Newark, N.J. and Cleveland.

A great example of this public-private model was launched by the City of New York in 2010, when a $30 million SIF grant generated over $60 million in private funding to implement and evaluate several new programs aimed at fighting poverty. The project reached over 18,000 individuals across eight partner cities, with programs ranging from employment initiatives to education efforts. Partners offered financial literacy services to nearly 10,000 individuals, connected nearly 3,000 individuals with employment, helped 1,100 individuals earn employment wage gains, and enabled 425 young adults to earn their high school equivalency diplomas.

In addition to providing service supports for thousands directly, the program culminated in valuable evidence for effective and efficient models that have begun to be replicated by other cities and the federal government – because they were shown to get real results.

A more recent model of social innovation in action was launched in 2016, when a second SIF grant was awarded to New York City– this time pairing the scale and muscle of government, the creative risks of philanthropy, and the tenacity of non-profit partners to tackle the mental health crisis affecting our city and nation, through Connections to Care.

In New York City alone we know that 1 in 5 New Yorkers’ experience a mental health disorder in a given year. Nationally, 42.5 million Americans struggle with mental illness and substance misuse each year.

Connections to Care is part of First Lady Chirlane McCray’s ThriveNYC – a comprehensive mental health plan for New York City which looks to both change the culture surrounding mental health care, and bolster community-based health and mental systems to better support thousands who should be part of a continuum of care, but are not. In its first year, over 900 non-healthcare staff from community-based partner organizations have been trained in various evidence-based mental health modalities. Already, over 6,800 people have benefitted from the work, and over five years, we anticipate the initiative will provide mental health services to up to 40,000 New Yorkers. But more importantly the work can serve as a model for low-cost, evidence-based interventions around an issue impacting every community, urban and rural, in the country.

It is clear that the challenges of a community cannot be addressed by government alone. But the elimination of this powerful federal funding model – which to date has received bipartisan support and a long record of successes – undercuts shared investments between communities, government, and the private sector. This work is our shared commitment and a smart investment that all lawmakers, regardless of party, should support.

Bloch is Executive Director of the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City.