08/07/2013 03:36 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2013

Helping the Poor Is No Longer a Priority for Today's Nonprofits

In the last decade or so, nonprofits have stopped caring about the plight of the poor.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, nonprofits joined together when cuts in social-safety-net programs were proposed.

Organizations that represented mostly middle-class people, like the League of Women Voters, professional groups for social workers, and major nonprofit coalitions such as Independent Sector, joined their antipoverty and grass-roots colleagues to fight against threats to the poor.

A wide range of health and education institutions, women's groups, consumer and civic organizations, and charities that aided the elderly made fighting poverty one of their major program priorities. They worked in tandem with organizations that mobilized the poor to fight for their rights­ -- most of them now gone -- in effective partnerships that commanded the attention of political leaders and government agencies. The leaders of all those nonprofit organizations never lost sight of the enormous problems that poverty presented for civil society and democracy.

Today, matters of poverty seem to be off the radar screen of nonprofits. That couldn't be more evident than in the failure of nonprofits to rush to oppose the massive assault on food stamps now working its way through the House of Representatives.

To be sure, legislation like the health-care overhaul sometimes briefly captures the imagination of the nonprofit world, drawing broad policy and financial support from diverse organizations to do something to help the needy.

But most nonprofits continue to remain satisfied in pursuing their more-narrow agendas, whether related to the environment, education, or gay marriage. They show little concern about the ravages brought on the country by income inequality, homelessness, hunger, and unemployment. Their executives are rewarded by their insensitive boards only for the work they do on their narrow agendas. The indifference of political leadership to matters of poverty only reinforces the negligence of nonprofits.

One might think that access to a basic necessity -- food -- would be a right that everyone who works at a nonprofit would consider important. But that hardly seems to be the case, from the lack of action the nonprofit world took to protect Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or foods stamps.

The food-stamp program is one of the most important parts of what remains of our social-safety net. Just under 48 million Americans receive an average of about $134 a month in food assistance, an amount vital to their well-being. More than one-fifth of all residents in Washington, D.C., and Mississippi receive food stamps. Nearly half of the households that receive them have children.

Food stamps have historically been financed as part of a comprehensive farm bill. When the Senate drafted its farm measure this year, it approved a $4-billion cut in food stamps, while the House of Representatives eliminated them altogether -- while preserving deep subsidies for wealthy farmers and food businesses.

Some House members are also pushing a separate measure that would cut about $20-billion from food stamps, causing more than 5 million people to lose benefits.

According to a new report by the Health Impact Project, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, such a cut would not only reduce the ability of low-income people to feed themselves but also increase the overall level of poverty in the country.

To their credit, when the House started its effort to abolish food-stamp spending, the Food Research and Action Center and its network of nutrition groups, the Coalition on Human Needs, and Feeding America mounted a stout defense of food stamps, with some back-up assistance from Bread for the World and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But most nonprofits have done little to mobilize opposition to the mean-spirited members of Congress who are willing to remove food from the mouths of children, the elderly, and disabled people.

Instead, many followed the lead of Independent Sector and the National Council on Nonprofits, which put all of their energies into fighting to preserve charitable deductions.

They have recently been joined by the Faith and Giving Coalition, a group of religious organization that was just created to focus on the charitable deduction. Do these groups have no more important things to do?

In these days of Tea Party fervor and a growing number of conservative ideologues in the House of Representatives, it isn't as easy for nonprofits to fight for and retain important antipoverty programs as it was two or three decades ago.

Congressional redistricting has entrenched old conservatives in their jobs and added new members to the House who are insensitive to the needs of poor people.

The absence of strong presidential leadership on behalf of the poor -- Mr. Obama talks only about the middle class -- appears to have dampened the ardor of Democratic politicians and progressive organizations. It is interesting to note that Organizing for Action, the president's "nonpolitical" action arm, has been silent on food stamps and other poverty-related matters.

The loss of grass-roots groups that mobilized the poor to fight for their rights (such as welfare and tenant organizations) has drained the nonprofit world of much of the spark and force that once inspired antipoverty efforts.

But that does not excuse nonprofits, especially those serving the middle class, from their responsibility to help the 16 percent of the country's residents who are poor. The response of nonprofits is a sad reflection of America's growing income and class divisions that are tearing apart the economy and fracturing communities.

Perhaps Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation's new leader, will persuade his institution and other foundations to back antipoverty and advocacy efforts and to deny funds to nonprofit organizations that do not make such activities a priority.

One hopes that he and other leaders across the nonprofit world will find the courage to lead a campaign to put poverty back on the agendas of nonprofits.

It is an embarrassment to our country that the nonprofit organizations created to serve society, let alone the political system, are so little concerned about economic inequity and social justice. How did nonprofits lose their sense of decency?

Pablo Eisenberg, a regular Chronicle of Philanthropy contributor, is a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown Public Policy Institute. His e-mail address is