Florida program asks first, spends later

Friday, August 23, 2002

From Florida comes news of a promising government program that seems to be working for poor people in poor neighborhoods.

Pushed by Gov. Jeb Bush as a fulfillment of a 1998 campaign promise, the program is called Front Porch Florida. It is urban revitalization with a twist: It challenges residents of poor communities to decide on their own what they want to do to make things better rather than telling them what must be done.

So far, 16 Florida communities are taking part, including Frenchtown, once the proud center of Tallahassee, Fla.'s black community. There, residents decided they wanted to help elderly residents so relatives wouldn't have to put them in nursing homes.

An example is nurse's aide Sabrina Newby, who stops by the apartment of her 98-year-old neighbor first thing every morning. The Frenchtown apartment is located just blocks from the governor's mansion in the state capital. In addition to looking after residents' health, Newby is, according to a news report, "part social worker, part cleaning lady, and sometimes just there to listen."

Under the initiative created by Bush in 1999, money is funneled to poor neighborhoods that create a committee or council of residents to choose a project to improve the area's quality of life. Front Porch is run out of the governor's office and fits with one of the themes of Bush's gubernatorial campaign four years ago: that state government doesn't have all the answers.

Critics claim the program's effects have been too few and too small, and might have been accomplished by other social service programs. Maybe.

Still, others of us will find much to praise in small programs that build on the finest tradition of neighbors helping neighbors to improve their lives and the communities in which they live.

Good for Florida, and good for Gov. Bush. Other states would do well to look to Front Porch Florida for a positive example of how to help the poor and vulnerable among us.