Brooklyn, N.Y. — Mark Winston Griffith has spent most of his career helping low-income and minority families enter what President Bush calls "the ownership society."
In 1991, Griffith co-founded a community group called the Central Brooklyn Partnership that tried to revive mostly African American neighborhoods such as Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Eventually, the group formed its own credit union -- at the time, the nation's largest black-owned community credit union.
It made loans to local businesses. It held seminars to help first-time buyers navigate the process of acquiring a home. It converted workers and renters into owners. Every day, as the partnership's executive director, Griffith asked himself, "How do we leverage the collective wealth of these neighborhoods and build power for people so that they have control over local resources?"
So when Bush speaks, as he did again at his news conference last week, about the virtue of expanding ownership -- of homes, businesses and stocks -- Griffith understands the yearnings the president evokes.
"The whole idea of an ownership society resonates very deeply not only with community development people, but also with black folks who are thinking along self-help lines," says Griffith, now a fellow at the Drum Major Institute, a New York think tank affiliated with the civil rights movement.
But in the end, Griffith argues, the expanded ownership Bush is promoting won't produce a more equitable society by itself. As a vision of citizenship, Griffith maintains, ownership is too narrow and isolating. "The ownership society," Griffith worries, "is about getting the best deal I can, and forget everybody else."
No Democrat in years has crafted a unifying rationale for domestic policy nearly as sweeping as Bush's emphasis on ownership. Griffith hasn't either. But in a recent essay in the online journal TomPaine.com, he has made more progress than any liberal yet in conceptualizing an alternative to the ownership society that draws on the Democrats' strongest legacy: its tradition of promoting collective action to expand individual opportunity and strengthen the social safety net.
These aren't abstract issues for Griffith, an articulate and engaging 42-year-old African American. He was born in Crown Heights, moved with his family to Queens, acquired an Ivy League pedigree at Brown University and returned to Brooklyn, first as chief of staff for a local politician, then as a community organizer. Now he lives, with his wife and young son, in the same house in Crown Heights that his grandmother bought half a century ago.
In his essay, Griffith acknowledged that ownership, especially homeownership, often strengthens families and neighborhoods, particularly in low-income communities. "In an economy where many people feel beaten down, homeownership often offers families ... a way to exert control over their own lives and environment," he wrote.
To Griffith, the problem comes when the search for individual assets distracts people from the opportunities and responsibilities that link them to their neighbors. When a man's home is his castle, in other words, sometimes the first thing the owner builds is a moat.
"What America really needs," Griffith wrote, "is a policy vision which sparks community building and cooperation among its citizens rather than instructing them to simply spend their way into the American Dream."
Griffith has seen these broad ideas play out most directly in his work on neighborhood development. It is a mistake, he concluded, to believe ownership always fosters community. To the contrary, he found that homeowners often resisted community development efforts -- such as organizing a market for open-air street vendors -- because they feared such initiatives might depress property values.
He saw the same pattern at the credit union. Eventually it was forced to merge into a larger institution because too many of the businesses it funded never repaid their loans. He acknowledges the credit union's collection system was inadequate. But too many borrowers, he concluded later, failed to recognize that when they took out loans they could not repay, they were really hurting neighbors who would be denied access to capital.
The central flaw in Bush's ownership society, Griffith believes, is that its key elements actively encourage such tunnel vision. Vouchers that allow parents to send their children to private school, for instance, provide a lifeline for some, but invite them to flee a shared investment in public schools.
Reducing guaranteed benefits under Social Security, and urging workers to make up the difference with individual investment accounts, erodes the program's role as a shared safety net for all Americans. Health savings accounts that encourage younger and healthier workers to abandon group health insurance plans work the same way.