WATCH HOW THIS PROJECT GIVES HOMES TO APPALACHIANS

They called it the miracle of Dry Creek.

On August 5, 2012, a once-every-few-centuries flood ravished Washington County Tennessee in Central Appalachia, one of poorest areas in America.

“There was nowhere for the water to go,” recalled Walter Crouch, the CEO of the Appalachia Service Project, a 46 year old organization dedicated to repairing and rebuilding homes.

So much water flowed down mountainsides the normally 10 to 20 feet wide Dry Creek expanded to 600 yards wide, washing homes onto the road and destroying a 63-year old United Methodist Camp that was a fixture in the community. All told, 139 homes were damaged and 45 were uninhabitable.

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The 2012 flood ravaged Washington County, TN, but ASP and its army of volunteers were able to repair more homes than FEMA could in a shorter amount of time.

Only two homeowners had flood insurance. Yet, because the event was so localized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did not declare it an emergency. That’s when the community stepped up, and stepped in.

By October 23 – just ten weeks after the flood – the all-volunteer team led by ASP broke ground. By November 22, the first home was done. By Christmas, six homes were finished.

By comparison, when tornados hit the southern part of the county FEMA rebuilt 5 homes during the same amount of time it took ASP to build 25 – all with volunteers.

Crouch said being denied a FEMA declaration may have been a blessing in disguise for the recovery effort.

“You don’t have to go overseas to see third world conditions. This isn’t reality TV. This is wake-up call TV.”

“It happened much more quickly. And it brought the community together,” he said.

Senator Lamar Alexander told the Johnson City Press, “It’s a terrific story of Tennessee volunteers and Tennesseans helping themselves with not much government help. I’ve never seen a better example of people helping people …”

Scenes of communities coming together after natural disasters, and events like September 11 and the Oklahoma City bombing, reflect the innate strength of American communities. As was the case of Central Appalachia, these miracles don’t happen by accident.

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Housing repairs are often the first to go when a poor family faces an income cut. ASP repairs such homes to help get those families back on their feet.

A Model Built on Grace

Started in 1969, ASP is dedicated to what Crouch calls a two-pronged mission.

“One is to confront substandard housing in poverty stricken areas of Central Appalachia. And two is to give transformational service experiences to volunteers. Both are equally important to us. While we’re helping low income families, the people who probably get helped the most are our volunteers who realize that life is about giving and not getting all the time, and that we’re called to serve rather than be served,” Crouch said.

ASP last year marshaled 17,000 volunteers from 32 states to work on 700 homes through a five-state region that includes Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Crouch says ASP does major and minor repairs including re-roofs, foundation, and drainage work. He said the families they serve often don’t have the financial resources to do routine maintenance, which compounds the cost and scope of repair jobs.

“There are no businesses, there are no governments, there are no non-profit organizations, there are no churches. There are only people.”

Leveraging relatively small amounts of public funding to secure private funding is a key part of ASP’s model. Crouch says when ASP applies for public money through grants they aim for a mix of 20 percent public funding and 80 percent private funding, which is the opposite approach of many applicants. Ultimately, however, only one to two percent of their funding comes from public funding while the rest is private.

After the 2012 flood, for instance, ASP used $200,000 in public money to help raise $2 million in private donations, and helped homeowners come out way head in terms of equity.

“After the flood we were putting about $30,000 hard costs into a home. When we were done they had a brand new 3 bedroom one bath home that was worth about $80,000,” Crouch said.

“In the first 43 weeks we did 22 homes so almost a home every two weeks,” Crouch recalled. “Most of these homeowners were living in old mobile homes before they got a conventionally-built 3 bedroom one bath. One said, when we asked her what color of siding and what color of roof do you want, ‘I get to choose? I already feel like a millionaire and I get to choose?’”

Last year Walter Crouch and ASP attracted volunteers from 32 states to repair and rebuild over 700 homes in Central Appalachia.

Public agencies took note of ASP’s approach. The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) adopted ASP’s model of how to manage and fund disaster-recovery efforts that don’t qualify for FEMA assistance level as a best practice.

Another key to their success, Crouch explained, is their reliance on local contractors who have the skills and experience to manage teams of volunteers with a wide-range of skill sets and experience.

Crouch also said while ASP is a faith-based organization they work hard to bring diverse denominations together with secular organizations.

“One of my favorite pictures is a home where RE/MAX realtors, Iowa State University volunteers and members of a Baptist church were all working on the same home. You had business, you had a public university and you had a church,” Crouch said.

“We see it as a grace gift. Grace deserved is no grace at all.”

“My message for that was simply this: There are no businesses, there are no governments, there are no non-profit organizations, there are no churches. There are only people,” Crouch said. “Those other things are only labels we organize ourselves around. If we just get down to the basics of people helping people we would be amazed at what we could accomplish.”

Crouch said another part of ASP’s model some people find controversial is their policy of never charging homeowners.

“Some people think we’re doing more bad than good. We know there are bad apples, but we serve the poorest of the poor. They couldn’t afford even the smallest housing payment. And many are elderly and handicapped folks,” Crouch said.

“Congressman Phil Roe (R-TN) put it well when he said, ‘One of those ten will be a bad apple. But don’t let that one stop you from doing good for the other nine.’ We don’t use the one as an excuse not to do things. We use the other nine as an excuse that we have to do something. Even Jesus healed ten lepers and only one came back to thank him,” Crouch said.

“We see it as a grace gift,” Crouch said. “Grace deserved is no grace at all.”

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After ASP fixed her house, Becky Garrett (not pictured) was able to bake cookies with her daughter and grandchildren (above) for the first time.

Navigating Challenges

Crouch said his greatest need is more volunteers. This past year, ASP received 4,000 applications for assistance. They served 700 applicants but couldn’t help the other 3,300. Crouch said it would take 85,000 volunteers to serve current applicants.

In terms of ASP’s approach to government, Crouch is more of a pragmatist than a partisan or ideologue. Still, he worries about government’s overreach and policies that drive up the cost of living for the people ASP is trying to serve.

For instance, government has to be very careful about providing so-called affordable housing.

“It’s like higher education. The cheaper the student loan, the higher the price of education has gone up. It’s the same in affordable housing,” Crouch said. “Because of cheap money – low-interest or no interest loans – the people who don’t need extra debt or payments are the people who end up with extra debt and payments.”

Crouch, for instance, sees the effects of misguided or over-zealous conservation efforts first-hand.

“Pushing up energy costs is one of the worst things that can happen to a low income Central Appalachia family. It’s an inelastic cost. They have to put gas in the tank to go to work. Four dollars a gallon gas for you and me means, ‘Ok, we don’t go to Starbucks a couple of times a month.’ For these families it means they have to cut something out, and they don’t have anything to cut out. Usually what they cut out are their home repairs,” Crouch said.

“If we just get down to the basics of people helping people we would be amazed at what we could accomplish.”

Finally, he wants government to be careful about regulation and to not underestimate the drive and resilience of local communities and people on the ground. Volunteers, he emphasizes, are critical to their mission and they always need more.

“You don’t have to go overseas to see third world conditions. This isn’t reality TV. This is wake-up call TV,” Crouch said.

“Most of the people we serve are heroic. Their survival efforts are heroic. They’re committed to a place they call home.”

Thanks to ASP and its army of helping hands, many more of those homes are in place.

 John Hart is Editor-in-Chief at Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.

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DEFUND AND THE DUMBING DOWN OF CONSERVATIVE PURITY

A Smarter Way to Stop Bad Spending
  
BLOGDefund and the Dumbing Down of Conservative Purity

With outlets like Politico reporting that “Ted Cruz reignites GOP civil war” it’s worth putting this family dispute in context. First, an aside – as some have asked – why are these same arguments on the left mere “debates”? A good question …

In short, what happened over the weekend was U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) took what was, on its face, a fairly reasonable and measured step to declare President Obama’s decision to unilaterally rewrite immigration law as unconstitutional. The problem was Cruz’s step had the practical effect of lengthening the Senate session and allowing the chamber to approve a host of Democratic nominees who may not have otherwise been approved. So, one could argue, this was a net loss for conservatism.

The deeper problem is Cruz’s action was something conservatives convinced themselves they had to settle for when a clear vote on “defunding” the order wasn’t going to happen. Therein lies the flaw in the right’s thinking. Instead of embracing aggressive but smart tactics too many have settled for what has become a false gospel of defundamentalism – a mistaken belief that grandiose gestures will do anything more than rally the faithful.

“Let’s face it. The defund campaigns have become a farce and a celebration of the arbitrary.”

Again, how to best oppose President Obama’s egregious and exploitative executive order is a worthy endeavor. As the Wall Street Journal has asked, if this order is allowed to stand does that mean the next Republican president can do tax reform by executive order? Returning to the rule of law and rejecting the rule of rulers is a cause that should unite the right.

Obama’s order, of course, had nothing to do with immigration and everything to do with political expediency. Senate Democrats had been sent on a forced retreat from power in the midterms so Obama ignited the oil fields of controversy out of spite, and in order to conceal deep Democratic divisions about the ObamaCare “mistake,” as Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently confessed.

On immigration, conservatives complained leadership didn’t have a serious strategy to oppose the president while leadership seemed to be concerned conservatives didn’t have a coherent Plan B to their incoherent Plan A. Both had a legitimate grievance.

House leadership could have committed to and passed a short-term funding bill that had tough “defund” language – or, even better, more targeted reforms (see Marc Thiessen’s analysis) – in order to force Senate Democrats to remove the language and therefore publicly celebrate Obama’s lawlessness. The problem in leadership’s mind, I suspect, is what would happen next. Would conservatives be satisfied with defining Democrats as the party of lawlessness and keep the government open, or would they insist on continuing the defundamentlist crusade and force a shutdown?

Harry Reid

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democrats were actually pleased with Cruz’s tactics, as it allowed them more floor time to confirm Obama’s nominees.

In the final analysis, Cruz’s gambit to oppose leadership’s failure to oppose produced more Obama appointments (by giving Democrats more floor time) and strengthened a lawless administration.

The lesson for leadership, yet again, is to not allow leadership vacuums to form because they will always be filled. The lesson for conservatives is to rethink their commitment to defundamentalism and replace it with something more effective and conservative.

Let’s face it. The defund campaigns have become a farce and a celebration of the arbitrary. As my four year old sometimes says, “I want olive oil on my noodles; I don’t want olive oil on my noodles.” You can’t win. Among lawmakers you hear, “It’s about defunding ObamaCare; it’s not about defunding ObamaCare.” Sometimes it seems 40 is the new four in Congress. But, in reality, a deeper and more menacing cultural trend has given rise to today’s tactical juvenilia and procedural relativism that passes for serious conservative opposition.

Only a postmodern age could produce what we see in Congress, even on the right.

“Returning to the rule of law and rejecting the rule of rulers is a cause that should unite the right.”

On omnibus bills, for instance, when crusades can be about anything they are about nothing. Last year, the goal was to defund ObamaCare. But, this year, members were “for” amnesty unless they supported the defund amnesty push. When did defunding ObamaCare stop being the goal and why? And what happened to the “surrender caucus” and who is now a member?

But why stop at ObamaCare or immigration? Unless members support fully defunding the IRS are they then not “for” state-sponsored political persecution of the tea party? Unless you fully defund ObamaCare’s Orwellian Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) are you not “for” death panels? Unless members support defunding the State Department and its negotiators are they not, therefore, “for” Iran obtaining nuclear weapons? This line of thinking leads everywhere, and nowhere.

Some groups will say, “But we really could have defunded amnesty because the Congressional Research Service said so.” Yet, some of these same groups were against CRS memos before they were for them.

Last year, when I was working for U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), we disseminated a CRS reportexplaining why ObamaCare funding would continue even in a shutdown. The defundamentalists said we were “selling out” and apologizing for the “surrender caucus,” etc. Yes, you are reading that correctly. The same senator, a phyisician, who offered the only serious ObamaCare alternative when the law was being debated, and warned that seniors would “die sooner” because of ObamaCare, was now part of the “surrender caucus.”

Again, only a postmodern conservative would fail to see the problem with rejecting CRS before embracing CRS. Regardless, it doesn’t take a CRS memo to know that Senate Democrats would have removed “defund” amnesty language, and that if it somehow managed to pass both chambers Obama would have vetoed the bill.

Tom Coburn

Sen. Coburn, who gave his farewell address last week, proved that conducting oversight, identifying waste and corruption, and crafting smart amendments is the best way to enact real conservative change.

A few final lessons:

The problem with “defund” gambits is not that members are asking for too much, but that they are asking for too little. They are not being too conservative; rather, they are not being conservative enough. Supporting grandiose and impossible “defund” campaigns requires little of elected officials and has the perverse effect of rewarding laziness and scorecard pandering. Work that produces real results – conducting oversight, identifying waste and corruption, and crafting smart amendments – is tedious and difficult. Outside groups should turn this thankless work into work that is celebrated and rewarded.

Coburn proved that this approach works. On earmarks, for instance, even though his goal was to end the culture of earmarks, he never set out to “defund” earmarks per se because he rightly guessed such an effort would fail. Why charge a machine gun emplacement when you can outflank the opposition?

While Coburn could have rallied the base by committing ritual suicide on the altar of bad strategy, he instead chose a strategy that had a better chance of succeeding. He went project by project and created cultural icons like the Bridge to Nowhere that are still being discussed today. He understood the art of winning by losing, rather than losing by losing. Most importantly, his approached worked.

The media likes to contrast Coburn with Cruz (see this National Journal piece) but, even as a loyal Coburn soldier, I don’t want Ted Cruz be the next Tom Coburn. I want him to be the best Ted Cruz. So far, Cruz has established himself as the Kanye West of conservatism, our insufferable superstar who has shown that even when if there isn’t a stage to rush he’ll simply build one on the spot.

“The problem with “defund” gambits is not that members are asking for too much, but that they are asking for too little.”

But conservatives should be asking for more. We should be looking for leaders who will charge hills to die on, not build stages to stand on.

If Cruz wants to be a hero he should seize the opportunity granted by leadership’s promise to return to what is called regular order – the process of passing 12 individual appropriation’s bills, something that hasn’t happened in eight years. That opening gives conservatives to fight principled, effective battles on all fronts.

A Republican Congress that botches regular order will have no credibility with taxpayers. Cruz should make sure this doesn’t happen by preparing hundreds of amendments to remedy the thousands of injustices generated by a federal government that routinely robs people of their dignity, opportunity and even their very lives, as we tragically saw with the VA. If leadership and the appropriators don’t do their work, Cruz and other conservatives should do it for them. That’s the kind of work conservatives should demand and expect – work that requires members to dwell on ideas and not just Iowa.

U.S. Senator Mike Lee’s (R-UT) anti-cronyism campaign, which rejects the notion that Washington should pick winners and losers, is a good template for Cruz and other happy warriors. But it’s time to put the defundamentalist crusade to bed, and instead embrace common sense, clear thinking and smart tactics – solid ground upon which all conservatives can truly stand firm.

John Hart is Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.

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HOW CAREFUL GUIDANCE GIVES FORMER PRISONERS A NEW LEASE ON LIFE

America Works keeps non-violent offenders out of prison by offering job training, counseling
  
COMMUNITY EMERGING LEADERSHow Careful Guidance Gives Former Prisoners A New Lease On Life

NEW YORK — Prison reform, including reducing recidivism, can strengthen individuals and families, and it’s a cause galvanizing both the right and left. While the intangible and unquantifiable benefits are enormous, reducing recidivism also saves taxpayers a hefty burden.

A new academic analysis from the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy shows how a relatively small investment can yield substantial results for both former prisoner and taxpayer. Through an enhanced job-training program run by an organization called America Works costing $5,000, scholars estimate average savings of about $231,000 for nonviolent ex-offenders. That is an astounding return of 46 times, a solid investment for taxpayers receiving savings on police expenses, legal and judicial bills, and prison costs.

“Very little research has been conducted on this topic,” according to authors Christopher Bollinger and Aaron Yelowitz, both economics professors at the University of Kentucky. “The results of this study have important implications for government policymakers, public and private social welfare agencies, and, of course, employers. Indeed, at a time of ever-tightening federal and state budgets and ever-rising costs of incarceration, the Obama administration and many state governments are seeking ways to reduce swollen prison populations, particularly the number of nonviolent criminals, partly by using new guidelines for early release. Likewise, many states are scrambling to find programs to sharply cut the number of repeat offenders.”

Bollinger and Yelowitz report that in the United States, more than 23 million criminal offenses were committed in 2007 triggering $15 billion in economic losses to victims and $179 billion in government spending. Sadly, of the roughly 650,000 inmates released from prisons and jails in the United States each year, the scholars report that as many as two-thirds will be arrested for a new offense within three years. However, the improved training seems to significantly benefit those with non-violent criminal histories (rather than violent criminal histories).

prisoner rehabilitation

“Only 31.1 percent of nonviolent ex-offenders who received enhanced training were arrested during the 18 to 36 months in which they were tracked, compared with 50 percent of similar participants who received standard training,” the authors wrote. “In contrast, former inmates with histories of violence were rearrested at virtually the same pace, whether they received enhanced training or not: 44.6 percent versus 42.6 percent, respectively.”

America Works, which also helps with job placement for veterans, is located in New York and six other states plus the District of Columbia. It uses what the scholars describe as “a tough-love approach,” that focuses on improving interpersonal communication and such “soft” skills as time and anger management.

“It places special attention on teaching practical skills that many former inmates never acquired, such as résumé preparation, search strategies, and interview techniques,” Bollinger and Yelowitz report. “And it uses a network of employers, who are open to hiring ex-offenders and with whom it has long-term relationships, to place clients. Its goal is not only to help former inmates find jobs but also to keep jobs, and it provides follow-up services for six months.”

Since 1984, America Works has successfully matched over 300,000 job seekers with thousands of employers. The scholars studied the enhanced America Works services from June 2009 to December 2010, with a randomized trial involving 259 ex-offenders in New York. Participants, all men, had been released from a prison, jail, or youth correctional facility within six months of acceptance into the program. Approximately half of the participants received enhanced employment services from America Works while the other half received typical services, also provided by America Works.

The authors do place a caveat on the result because of the sample size. Digging into their results, Bollinger and Yelowitz also noted that the enhanced services had the best impact among nonviolent criminals with the fewest prior charges. They also found variation among three types of nonviolent offenders: property offenders, offenders imprisoned for sale or possession of drugs, and those with minor offenses. Ex-offenders with property crimes and those with minor offenses were found to be most responsible for positive recidivism results. The subset with a history of drug crimes appeared to have no significant impact on recidivism results.

A movement called “Ban the Box” is seeking to prevent employers from asking prospective hires whether they have a criminal history, a controversial policy opposed by employers and the broader business community. The work from Bollinger and Yelowitz shows that perhaps a better approach is transparency combined with improved training for ex-offenders. Their study reveals such an approach is just the first step, though, since it appears training for violent criminals is a much more difficult task. Yet their insights are important as policymakers continue on the path toward prison reform.