Poverty Reduction Initiative of Northwest Michigan:
Creating a Community Response to the Poverty in our Midst
The negative effects of poverty on child development and family functioning have been documented in countless studies and many volumes over decades of research. They include, for example, inhibition of children’s intellectual development (e.g. Duncan, Brooks-Gunn and Klebanov, 1994; Weitzman, 2003); increased rates of child abuse and neglect (e.g. Belsky, 1993); increased rates of behavioral problems of children and depression of mothers (e.g. Duncan, Brooks-Gunn, and Klebanov, 1994); higher infant mortality and chronic illnesses, higher morbidity at every age and shorter life expectancies (Reiman, 2004); higher rates of teen pregnancy (Luker, 1995); etc. etc. etc. One good review can be found in Luther (1999), who provides a comprehensive description of child, family and community-level factors that modify the outcomes of children experiencing poverty, integrating a vast array of research findings and elucidating underlying mechanisms.
Similarly, there are a plethora of approaches to attenuate these effects by reducing risk factors and increasing the resilience of children, youth, and parents (e.g. Weitzman, 2003). Rather than creating one more effort to ameliorate the negative effects of poverty, while doing nothing to eliminate the poverty level of the families themselves, we believe that we have a moral imperative to attempt to reduce the number of families living in and near the poverty level. We further believe that any effort to do so poses critically important research questions: Can a community take action to reduce its rates of poverty? What processes can mobilize and maintain effort over the long term? What specific strategies are successful? What pockets of poverty are most effectively reduced? For example, can we impact people living in or near poverty over long periods of times? or those who move in and out of poverty cyclically? Can we reduce the incidence rate among seniors? Single adults? Single-parent families? Two-parent families? If successful here, can the process and strategies be translated and applicable to other communities in our state?
Currie, E. (1998). Crime and Punishment in America. Henry Holt and Co.: New York, NY.
Luker, K. (1996). Dubious Conceptions: The Politics of Teenage Pregnancy. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.
Payne, Ruby, A Framework for Understanding Poverty
Statement of project’s importance and relevance to the community
Poverty rates in isolation do not tell the entire story in our region. According to the 2000 U.S. census data, our county poverty rates range from 5.4% (Leelanau County) to 10.5% (Kalkaska County), all at or below the rate for the state of Michigan (10.5%). However, we know that the federal definition of poverty greatly underestimates the degree of need and number of financially struggling citizens. These include the “working poor”, who are only a paycheck or two from poverty. and may move in and out of poverty on a cyclical basis. Many characteristics of our region exacerbate the problems of the poor and near poor. Extremely high and rapidly rising land values (and, thus, the lack of affordable housing) and low-paying, often seasonal, service sector jobs increase the actual economic hardship for our working families. Jobs that do not provide health insurance prevent access to our world-class health care system. Insufficient rural transportation (including a still struggling and fledgling public transportation system) from pockets of lower cost housing to distant jobs, and high winter heating costs all add to the actual burden of many of our citizens. We also have large numbers of migrant and seasonal farm workers in the region, who may not be included in the above poverty rates.
In April 2001, a two-day conference “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” (Payne, 1998) attracted 300 human service professionals and educators from the region. Following that, presentations on poverty in our area were made to the Economic Club of Traverse City and the Chamber of Commerce annual conference.
Because of interest generated by these educational and informative programs an ad hoc planning group including the staff to Multi-Purpose Collaborative Bodies, many health and human services professionals, educators, local funders (Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation and Rotary Charities), and general citizens was formed. Continued education of the community regarding the culture of poverty was rejected in favor of mobilizing the communities in the region to attack the causes of poverty themselves, thereby reducing the rates of poverty in our counties. Although we’ve had a more or less continuous War on Poverty for 40 years, waged by federal and state governments and local education, health and human services, and although progress has made on some fronts, poverty and near poverty remain at unacceptable levels in our country. We wish to determine the extent to which a community, with broad-based citizen involvement, can develop and implement successful strategies to reduce the incidence of poverty.
Objectives and research methods
On February 6, 2004, approximately 250 leaders from a five-county region (Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, and Leelanau) gathered for a daylong process to identify and begin planning strategies to alleviate factors contributing to poverty. The process, described below, culminated in initial plans to impact at least five factors to reduce poverty rates: Employment and Wages, Affordable Housing, Health and Access to Health Care, Education and Training, and Social Attitudes regarding poverty and the poor, of both those living in poverty and the larger community.
Each issue group developed an initial action plan with goal or problem statements, several objectives, action steps, and in some cases responsible persons/groups and time lines. There were participants in each group who were familiar with efforts already under way. The creative process was stimulated by those new to the issues and often from outside the health and human services arena. The plans are presented in Appendix B. They provide an excellent and useful starting point for continued activity by participants and recruitment of others.
After the plans were presented in plenary session, next steps were identified. When asked who would be interested in attending a follow-up meeting in May to hear updates from issue groups and continue our momentum, essentially all participants raised their hands. The fact that almost no one left early on a stormy Friday afternoon indicates the level of interest in this initiative!
The core planning group met the following week to debrief and plan a celebration, debriefing, and planning breakfast. Presenters, group facilitators, and the larger planning group attended this on Feb. 27. Each issue group is moving forward with its plan. A steering committee is planning a half-day follow-up meeting on May14.
Work plan, timeline, and dissemination plan
Over the next several years, there is a need for the steering committee to coordinate and finance the five issue groups who will be responsible for determining the work plan for each issue. In Strategic planning terminology the plan of work would look like this:
Plan for collaboration
The plan for collaboration is a multi-level plan, integrating agencies, organizations, government and private partners into the initiative. Although this region has a long history and solid experience of collaborative efforts among health and human service providers, there is not recognition among the broader communities of poverty and its challenges for our families. Presentation of data and information is insufficient to motivate community leaders to take action. We believe the methodological process outlined above engaged a critical mass of those in attendance to follow through. Although approaches to ameliorate the negative effects of poverty are myriad, and although federal and state governments have devised a plethora of programs over 40 years to reduce the number of people in poverty, we are unaware of any community taking on the issue with a broad-based group of citizens, such as we are doing.
The steering committee of 21 people is made up of directors of many different state and local agencies as well as government officials, non-profit directors and private for profit businesses. The issue groups are similarly represented by volunteers from all sectors and organizations, facilitating collaboration.