Want to Solve Poverty? Look to Poor for Answers

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I learned a new word this week stay-cation. Stay-cation is the media’s new moniker for staying close to home for your summer vacation because you can’t afford to go on a normal vacation.

This new lingo and 4 dollar a gallon gas, clearly illustrate a new reality: the line that divides the middle class and the working poor is blurring fast.

More middle class families find themselves struggling with the same problems of the poor–job loss, higher food and gas prices.

More middle income folks are learning to navigate unfamiliar territory in order to keep afloat. They are filing unemployment claims, seeking utility payment assistance, and even getting help from food pantries. Local pantries are experiencing increased demands on their dwindling resources from families who used to fit comfortably in the middle of the economic spectrum.

With the loss of high-paying, blue-collar jobs over the last 40 years, the number of people struggling financially has steadily increased across the state. Last week, the plight of Ohio’s working poor was spotlighted in a report released by Columbus’ Community Research Partners, a think tank that monitors socioeconomic trends.

According to their research, nearly one and a half million Ohioans live in poverty, which translates into the highest portion of our population living in poverty since 1964. These working poor have low wage jobs they simply don’t earn enough to cover their family’s basic needs. Their stagnation is intertwined with low high school graduation rates, regional economic downturns, and the vicious cycle of generational poverty.

And contrary to your image of a poor person, poverty affects Ohioans of every age, race and household type. As a matter of fact, sixty-six percent of Ohio’s poor are white.

In a retro-shout out to President Lyndon Johnson, Governor Strickland is rolling out his own war on poverty. In addition to the billion dollar economic stimulus package he’s pushing, he has now created an anti-poverty task force. Its mission is to come up with what Strickland calls immediate and pragmatic policy changes that will reduce the number of Ohioans living in poverty. Preliminary recommendations from the task force may come as early as this fall.

As a veteran of the non-profit service army, I’ve witnessed many federal, state and local attempts to tackle this stickiest of issues. A major mistake made by well-meaning social service professionals is not including poor people in the planning and development of anti-poverty programs.

While it’s easy to dismiss input from the poor, I am convinced this is one of the main reasons most of anti-poverty initiatives have failed. Just because someone is poor, does not mean they are not savvy. The normal we know what’s best for you approach will not work.

Including poor folks in the planning could help create more sustainable and results-oriented anti-poverty programs. Strickland’s task force can look to non-profit housing and community development programs for examples of how citizen participation increases neighborhood-level success.

Let’s hope that the social service and other coalitions working on new solutions figure out a way to include the knowledge and experiences of the poor and middle-class.

We will not be able to totally eliminate poverty, but empowering citizens to be a part of the solution could help policymakers finally find short and long-term answers to reducing poverty in Ohio.

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