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United Way president speaks about working poverty

| Thursday, November 17, 2016

Matt Harrington, president and CEO of United Way of St. Joseph County, said 50 percent of families in the county struggle to make ends meet — even when its members have jobs.

During a lunchtime discussion held in Geddes Hall, Harrington talked about the pressing social concern of poverty in St. Joseph County and United Way’s current approaches to addressing it. He first shared  United Way’s past successes in other regions of the country due to “redistributing resources and creating impact,” he said.

“Fifteen years ago, our goal was to make United Way something to everyone,” he said. “Now, our goal is to continue helping with education and income, and help to turn the lights on.”

Harrington said United Way is determined to bring the same kind of impact to St. Joseph.

“We would take a look at what were the needs in the community, and then start doing research,” Harrington said.

Harrington explained that, in order to determine the level of financial need in each region, United Way launched a survey called “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed” (ALICE). The main focus of it is “to consider those families, which are referred to as ALICE, that have jobs but are still struggling,” rather than merely measuring the number of unemployed families, Harrington said.

The results of ALICE in St. Joseph County shows that 50 percent of families are still “finding a way to afford the basic needs,” Harrington said.

“We really want the government to do something about poverty and to help those who work hard but still can’t make ends meet,” he said.

One barrier ALICE families face is the lack of  federal support because of they are over a maximum income threshold, Harrington said.

To illustrate his point, Harrington divided the audience into groups of four to do a “poverty simulation activity.” Each group was a family with a married couple and two kids, and they were asked to assign financial weights on the resources (i.e. households, transportation) they would invest in with a limited budget. The activity simulated the difficulties ALICE families face when lack of financial resources  are aggravated by unemployment and unexpected emergencies.

“It’s so difficult to prioritize any resources, and we realize how reliant we are on [the] school system to provide meals,” an audience member said after the exercise..

Another audience member explained the difficulties his group faced when deciding between paying for healthcare or two meals a day.

“It’s sad to think that when you’re that poor, healthcare would be the last thing you think about,”  the audience member said.

The activity was an “emotional exercise of making tough choices,” Harrington said.

He stressed that the emergence of new urban poverties leads to social unrest like potential domestic violence.

Harrington said United Way proposes a structure of three steps of tackling poverty in St. Joseph, beginning with helping young children.

“Many of those who were poor at five are still poor in their thirties,” he said.

Helping kids smoothly transition to middle and high school is the second step, Harrington said. Thus, United Way supplements traditional child care with education to ensure kindergarten readiness. 

“Many people neglect this step, which is why we only have 70 percent of the population being high school graduates here,” he said.

Harrington said the final step is helping stabilize families through financial support and literacy education. United Way seeks to find community solutions through “collective impact,” identifying a common agenda through collaboration among different community partners, each enforcing the other. He said collective impact stresses  “continuous communication” between each sector and “supporter organizations” that do logistics..

To ensure accountability of local organizations, United Way adopted various quantity and quality measures, Harrington said. They wanted to show their donors “accreditation of their support.”

“We are intrigued by the problems and look forward to seeing the results in St. Joseph,” he said.

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