As I See It: A way forward on a road to opportunity

Jun 8, 2018

An opinion piece in the Worcester Telegram, written by Jill C. Dagilis, WCAC:

How does a community pave a road to economic opportunity and self-sufficiency for area residents?

Early last month, Worcester Community Action Council, Inc. joined our Community Action partners from throughout the Commonwealth, the Mass Budget Office, United Way organizations and funders to release a new report, “Obstacles on the Road to Opportunity: Finding a Way Forward.” The report estimates that anti-poverty programs have reduced the number of people in Massachusetts who live below the poverty level – $22,000 for a family of four – by more than half. That progress, however, will be undone by the recent federal tax cut and President Trump’s budget projections. These combined actions would cut non-defense discretionary funding, some of which supports anti-poverty programs, from $579 billion today to $306 billion in 2028.

It’s hard to believe it’s been more than fifty years since the passage of the federal Economic Opportunity Act which led to the establishment of the national Community Action network and programs designed to address poverty. At that time local city, business and faith leaders created Worcester Community Action Council to respond to President Johnson’s call to action in the War on Poverty. In the 1960s, as a result of these efforts there was an immediate drop in poverty rates throughout the country.

However, despite extensive work by some 1,110 community action agencies nationally, progress stalled in the mid-1970s as the federal minimum wage eroded against inflation. As noted in the Obstacles report and the website 24/7 Wall St. report, recently cited by the Telegram & Gazette, even amidst great economic development and growth in Worcester, tremendous need continues for people who live at poverty levels.

In some ways the 24/7 report exposed a cloak of invisibility around poverty, but it also looked at poverty with a wide lens that doesn’t tell the whole story.

For some, poverty is generational, often stemming from discriminatory policies that were created decades ago but continue to create barriers today. Others experience situational poverty such as college students, seniors (living on fixed incomes), and newcomers to this, a welcoming community, who are beginning new lives here. Worcester has a high concentration of both college students and seniors, as well as new immigrants. All were included in the data found in 24/7′s report. While poverty is real for anyone experiencing its effects, college students, for example are more likely to break through to self-sufficiency because they are investing in their future success by obtaining their education. While many recent college grads are not landing high paying positions and school debt is a reality creating hardships for most, they have set themselves on a course that will pay off in the long run.

The fact is households in every community in this state are struggling. Here in Worcester nearly one-third of children live in poverty, a statistic which grows to 51 percent if families living at 200 percent of the federal poverty level or ‘near poor’ are included. Nearly a quarter, 22 percent of Worcester residents who filed federal tax returns in 2015 claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit which reduces taxes for the working poor. Renters in Worcester County are spending between 21-23 percent of their income for housing; in the city alone that number stands at 25-28 percent. And 22 percent of Worcester residents receive aid under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the successor to Food Stamps.

Poverty is a complex issue and there is rarely a single contributing factor. There are no overnight solutions. Addressing poverty requires opportunities – jobs with livable wages, affordable housing and childcare, a strong transportation system, and an integrated approach to help people move forward to economic self-sufficiency.

For many it’s not as simple as finding a job, but rather it’s about having the education and skills to find employment that pays a livable wage. In 2017, nearly half of WCAC’s 30,000-plus fuel assistance clients were from working households, some with two or three jobs, and yet still unable to make ends meet; one-third are senior citizens living on a fixed income, and for nearly half our fuel clients, the low-income home energy assistance was the only public subsidy they received.

The road to opportunity must include work-readiness, employment training and high school equivalency programs like those offered at WCAC’s Job & Education Center. Older youth who were unable to complete their education due to various life circumstances benefit from a flexible, safe learning environment where they can complete their education, enhance their skills and pursue sustainable employment. Failure to address this need creates a gap in society, allowing too many to fall through the cracks, hindering economic growth and prosperity.

The Obstacles on the Road to Opportunity report provides a platform to define the challenges and spark critical policy changes needed to address income inequality. The report’s release last month initiated a series of several public community forums to be held throughout the state. WCAC will host its regional forum in Worcester this fall to bring together a cross-section of stakeholders and varying perspectives including funders, partners and service providers from across Central Massachusetts to continue these efforts within our region.

Beyond the moral obligation we might or should feel to help people who are struggling on the road to economic opportunity and self-sufficiency, there are tremendous social and economic repercussions for failing to do so. Calls by President Trump and others at the federal level for dramatic funding cuts to fuel assistance, weatherization programs, the Community Service Block Grant and many other so-called “safety net” programs are alarming and unacceptable to say the least. Now is the time to reaffirm our commitment to making our community a strong, diverse and economically stable place to live, work and raise a family, and age safely and gracefully. We hope you will join the discussion and call to action.

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