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The Minority Female Single Parent Program

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Rockefeller Foundation’s (RF) Equal Opportunity (EO) division sought to address unemployment in minority communities. These efforts aligned with the EO program’s broader goal: to secure and expand social, educational, and economic opportunities for racial minorities in the United States. As the country's urban crisis worsened in the 1970s, EO program officers tried to clarify the causes of, and support public policies designed to address, minority youth unemployment. These officers began by commissioning a background paper on the problem of youth employment by political economist Lester Thurow, of MIT's Sloan School of Management. The paper became the basis of a conference on “Unemployment of Youth and Policy Alternatives” held at the Rockefeller Foundation in May 1977. The RF funded extensive research into the problem in the late 1970s.

Despite these efforts, youth employment never emerged as a full-fledged program in the RF. By 1980, the Foundation had reevaluated its focus, recognizing the structural issues facing minority communities that extended beyond this single issue. This shift may have also resulted from pragmatic concerns. In the late 1970's, the field of youth employment was saturated with programs developed by the federal government, several foundations, and various local public and private agencies. In addition, Ronald Reagan's election as president in 1980 made foundations more skeptical about the federal government's willingness to replicate and enlarge their programs. 

A New Focus

This political shift provided the RF with an opportunity to reframe its focus. In 1981, President Reagan signed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA), which "encouraged states to devise experimental 'demonstration projects' designed to get welfare recipients to work.[1] The RF decided to implement its own demonstration project aimed at improving the circumstances of minority women on welfare. It invested $17.5 million dollars (nearly $30 million today) in the Minority Female Single Parent demonstration (MFSP), which ran between 1982 and 1988. Although the Foundation worked within a federal framework, it approached the problem with a different ideological perspective than the Reagan administration. In a 1981 New York Times article, RF President Richard Lyman said that through the MFSP program, "We want to underscore the foundation's commitment to poor blacks and Hispanics at a time when their plight ranks relatively low on the national agenda."[2] 

A 1987 MFSP Program Report

The MFSP demonstration sought to examine whether community-based organizations could run employment training and counseling programs that would reduce poor single mothers’ reliance on welfare. The RF partially funded four community-based organizations (CBOs) to operate training programs: the Atlanta Urban League, Opportunities Industrialization Center in Providence, Rhode Island, the Center for Employment Training (CET) in San Jose, California, and Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) in Washington, D.C. The organizations designed their own program models to address the employment challenges facing low-income single mothers. Nearly 4,000 women enrolled in these demonstrations, which offered a variety of services, including job skills assessments, counseling, remedial education, child care assistance, job-skill training, and job placement assistance.

Evaluating Success and Failure

In 1987, the Foundation issued an interim report on the factors they identified as hindering the success -- or causing the outright failure -- of these RF trial programs . "The Foundation is publishing these interim observations," they noted, "in the hope that policymakers and others responsible for such programs in the future can build on the lessons of the past." First, the RF noted that childcare was essential for participants. Second, the Foundation highlighted poor reading and language skills among participants as a significant problem, but did not recommend additional classes as the solution; literacy training had to be made relevant to a job. Third, the structure of the programs must focus not only on job training, but also on job placement. And finally, the women needed access to support services -- personal counseling, transportation, medical care, family planning, legal services, and housing -- to help them succeed in the programs. The CBOs reported that "if a participant's day-to-day concerns were not addressed, sooner or later, she will drop out."[3] 

The program's final evaluation supported these early conclusions, and added a few more: above all, "immediate, job-specific training with a strong focus on getting trainees into jobs" proved more successful than providing remedial education first.[4] Only one program, CET, resulted in long-term earnings gains. This program differed from the others in that it provided job-specific skill training up front (based on jobs that existed in the local area), and wove basic literacy and math skills into the training. The other three programs led with remedial education.  CET's training focused not only on developing skills required for specific jobs, but also on training in areas with large labor needs. The program worked to place participants in jobs immediately after training.

An MFSP program participant

A "Constructive and Important Failure"

In the end, the MFSP program achieved very minimal success by its own measures. Within the RF, MFSP's failures prompted a major debate about whether the EO program should concentrate its resources on research and policy recommendations or on action-oriented demonstration projects. To a certain extent, RF leaders considered this an institution-wide question in the 1980s. In a July 1984 memo to RF president Richard Lyman about the future direction of the foundation, one staffer noted, “I am struck with the persistent ambivalence at the RF over whether our mission can or should be to help solve problems or merely to diagnose their causes and suggest alternative ways for solving them.”[5] In the end, the MFSP demonstration tried to reconcile the tension between research and action by developing an analytical framework with applicability to other anti-poverty programs. For this reason, studying where the MFSP program fell short held important practical potential. Some outside commentators agreed. Historian of philanthropy Peter Frumkin, for instance, called the MFSP program "one of philanthropy's most constructive and important failures" -- and, he said, "constructive failures create value by helping us understand what went wrong."[6]


[1] Judith Sealander, The Failed Century of the Child: Governing America's Young in the Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 123.

[2] “Rockefeller Foundation Shifts Policy,” New York Times, December 20, 1981.

[4] Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., Evaluation of the Minority Female Single Parent Demonstration, Volume I, Summary Report, October 1992, xiii.

[5] JS to RWL, July 16, 1984, Rockefeller Foundation Collection, Richard Lyman Papers, Box 1, Folder 5, RAC.

[6] Peter Frumkin, Strategic Giving: The Art and Science of Philanthropy (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 2006), 68.

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