Leaders explore ways to reduce poverty
Published: Monday, July 1, 2002 at 11:04 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 1, 2002 at 11:04 a.m.
There may be no consensus as to the number of people who are living poor in Alachua County, but public officials and concerned residents agree on one thing: poverty has set its roots deep here.
Changing that fact has not proved easy, although suggestions abound as to how to go about it.
Scores of community leaders, service providers and local residents met for a series of "poverty summits" in 1999, in an attempt to come up with recommendations that would have a positive effect on low-income lives.
Among the recommendations were: seeking new kinds of industry that would offer jobs and benefits to those who don't have a college education; developing new job-training programs to teach job seekers how to find and keep a job; coordinating social services and health care benefits; shaping transportation resources to meet the greatest need; and then getting the word out about the services available to those who needed them most.
Since that time, some programs have been started, but if statistics are believed, the face of poverty remains largely unchanged.
Just ask Leveda Brown, who spent more than 20 years as a social worker in what was then Florida's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, and an additional 16 years as an Alachua County commissioner. Brown served as moderator of three poverty summit sessions.
"The thing that distresses me is that over the 30-plus years that I've watched this, the statistics for Alachua County have not changed. The individual poverty level has remained at 23 to 24 percent, although the population has probably tripled," Brown said.
In Alachua County, where the local economy is dominated by the government and service sectors, wages in many professions are markedly below state averages.
Alachua County's rate of poverty is also, by some measures, higher than the state average - by about 4 percent.
Kim Baginski, right, raises her arms in success after breaking an arrow with her neck as part of a exercise to help individuals overcome obstacles in the way of their employability. Jon M. Fletcher/The Gainesville Sun
By the government's most recent guidelines, which say that a family of four with a net income below $18,100 is living in poverty, Alachua County's poverty rate was 17.1 percent in 1998, compared to a state average of 13.6 percent.
The county's child poverty rate - for persons under age 18 - was 23.3 percent, compared to 21.9 percent statewide.
"You wonder if there has been any advance in dealing with poverty in Alachua County, as long as we've been working on it and as little success as we've seen," Brown said.
Brown, who took part in the series of poverty summit meetings, insists the question of poverty is something that must be addressed.
"We ignore it at our own risk," she said. "Hopelessness is just deadly in our culture."
Lack of diversity
In December, John Skelly was appointed manager of Alachua County's poverty reduction program. Skelly is re-evaluating existing programs available to low-income residents, helping to establish partnerships with a variety of social service agencies and looking for new ways to create opportunities for the working poor.
"I can't say I'm an expert on poverty here," Skelly said. "I'm as much in the dark as anybody, but I think we have to grasp the nettle and accept the reality that a 26-percent poverty rate (for individuals living in the city of Gainesville) is abnormal."
A lack of diversity in the economy is clearly part of the picture when you look at poverty here, Skelly said.
"We are a one-company town, with the university being the main economic engine with its 50,000 employees and all the students who are spending money supporting commercial activity here," he said. "Unfortunately, we've got that jewel here, but we have become dependent upon it."
Being a state and service economy keeps wages lower, he noted.
"There are government jobs here with the Department of Labor, Department of Revenue, Department of Children & Families. These are jobs that, even for people with a college degree, don't pay a lot of money. They pay $19,000 to $22,000 to someone to start as a public assistance specialist with DCF," he said.
That's not a lot of money for those with college degrees, and many college grads choose to look elsewhere for a place to work and live, he points out.
Edith Orsini, director of the North Central Florida Health Planning Council, points out that Gainesville's student population has a tremendous impact on the work force.
"You have someone here with a spouse, who has a master's degree and is going to be here two years. They want to work - they have to work. So they take a job that they would never have taken if they didn't know they'd only be here for a couple of years," Orsini said.
"That's a job that someone else who may be qualified doesn't have," she added.
"State employment is what contributes to the fact that wages are lower here. That's a no-brainer," Brown said. "Student labor affects it, but the state just pays less than a living wage."
Orsini says making the county government offer a higher minimum wage is one potential avenue to address the issue, but asks, "How does that help everybody else?"
Brown thinks such a step "would just inflate things artificially by running up the cost of goods and services here, making it even harder for people who don't have much money to make it."
Jobs and industry
Approach the subject of unemployment and you also must look at Alachua County's job market. Do we offer enough jobs, and the right kind of jobs, for those who need them?
Steve Reardon, chairman of United Way of Alachua County, believes the solutions lie in more meaningful employment with benefits to the year-round population here in Gainesville.
"Some things have come out of that poverty summit, but they were short-term, interim steps," Reardon said. "Personally, I would say we need other types of employers here. Back in the early '90s in a community needs assessment, we identified the need for better-paying jobs that provided benefits. Ten years later, we are still looking at those same concerns."
Brown said, "I have thought for years that the thing we are really missing is manufacturing jobs that people can go into right out of high school, with benefits."
The former county commissioner points out that more than half of Alachua County's high school graduates don't go on to college.
Ask people what kinds of jobs are needed here and you get a variety of answers, poverty reduction program manager Skelly said.
As he put it, the responses range from, "We need anybody who's got a job open," to, "We need businesses that are high-tech, low-pollution, high-wage, high-skill - that don't have an impact on the environment or increase traffic."
Somewhere in between, Skelly said, is what's really going to happen.
"There seems to be some benefit to having employment of any sort. I think the diversity of the economy is clearly a part of the picture," he said, citing Marion County's efforts to diversify by attracting manufacturing.
Such jobs may pay low wages, Brown and Skelly note, but many take new employees right out of high school and provide them with health and retirement benefits.
Is there a sustainable market here for skilled industry, as they have established in Marion County?
"I think we need to examine the long-term potential for that market and whether it is something the community ought to investigate or invest in," Reardon said.
But he warned "if we do provide job training for industrial manufacturing, you have to have a job market to place them in. Otherwise, you've created a nice export product."
Jobs and education
The lack of qualified people for jobs we do have is because of an educational system that gears everybody for the university instead of a job, Brown said.
"The idea that we educate all of our kids to pass a certain test at a certain point, then gear them toward the entrance exam at the university is misleading, when over 50 percent of the kids in our county don't go on to college," she added.
More programs in the schools that will help steer youngsters to a trade - as a plumber, an electrician, a mechanic - are as much needed as a basic grounding in humanities and music, in Brown's view.
There's a different sort of education that's key to getting and keeping a job, say those who struggle with the poverty question here. It might be called an education in the skills of living.
"My background is in employment and training, and my prejudice is toward that as a solution," Skelly said.
In 10 years working at the Department of Labor's employment service here, Skelly said, he found employers more concerned with what he calls "the soft skills" than whether a job candidate had the training to lay bricks or draw blood.
"These are things to help you get and keep a job: go to work on time, get along with co-workers, show up every day, follow directions, don't go home early, don't steal, dress appropriately," he said.
It's basic stuff that a lot of people learn by observing their parents, Skelly said, adding that many families today are dysfunctional in that regard.
"They don't have a parent or parents who exemplify that role model, so when the kids get out of school, they don't have a clue about what the workplace is like," he said. "It's an alien and hostile environment, and they don't react well."
Alexandra Harris would agree. Harris, an employment counselor, works with "difficult-to-place" welfare recipients, helping them find jobs and keep them.
She describes her "Welfare to Work" class offered through the welfare transition services at Santa Fe Community College as "Welfare to Well-Being" training - basic training in employment skills from the first handshake to interviews and on-the-job performance.
"It's not just about getting a job," Harris said. "It's about getting people to think about stepping stones instead of what's right in front of them." Most of her graduates have stepped into the work force.
One area in which there have been noticeable advances since the poverty summit of 1999 is in centralizing services for those who need them.
Santa Fe Community College and the Florida Institute for Workforce Innovation operate a network of four "one-stop" career centers in Alachua and Bradford counties.
One-stop clients can get free help on résumé preparation, filing for unemployment, coaching for interviews and other job-related services. Businesses also can take advantage of such services as employee skill assessments, job fairs and, of course, connecting job-seekers with openings.
"SFCC has gotten up to 20 percent of the local employers actually listing job openings through this system and that's a miraculous achievement," Skelly said.
Too often, Skelly said, employers have not been satisfied with the results of using a public employment service system, complaining that they get applicants who are unqualified, or who turn up for jobs that already have been filled.
"Most would rather just put an ad in the paper or go through a temp service," he said.
Tom Belcuore, director of the Alachua County Health Department, is involved in setting up a computer program that will link a number of social service agencies.
If a client comes in and completes the paperwork to qualify for assistance through one program, then gives permission, that information can be shared with other groups.
Called ACES, for Alachua County Eligibility System, initially it will link the Health Department, Social Services Department, the WeCare program operated by the Alachua County Medical Association and Catholic Charities.
"The goal is to link folks that work with the people who need care," Belcuore said. "It's a matter of interest and ability, but I think it will work."
Employment is more than landing a job at a living wage, Orsini points out. As director of a 16-county health planning council, she believes employment also should include health care benefits.
Family members may work two or more low-paying jobs to make ends meet and still have no health insurance. Many employers put employees on a part-time basis, working 37 hours a week or less, in order to avoid paying benefits.
"Why can't we have our own county health plan that covers everybody regardless of the employer?" Orsini asks, citing Hillsborough County, which has instituted a half-cent sales tax and created its own HMO program.
"In Michigan, there's a place that created a community health plan where the employers contribute one-third, the employees contribute one-third and the physicians involved contribute back to the plan 10 percent of their fees," she said.
"The point is there are many different ideas out there today on how to provide access to health care," she said. "The bottom line is that you need some kind of program to assist the guy off the street who wants to have a job."
The Alachua County Health Care Board is now conducting a survey to see how much insurance would be needed to cover those who fall through the coverage cracks.
Barbara Kelleher, director of ChildCare Resources, which covers five counties, said 600 children are on a waiting list for child care assistance in Alachua County. The list has existed for two years, and she doesn't see it getting shorter.
There are specific categories of children that have to be placed in child care, she explained. First are those whose parents are in the welfare transition or WAGES program. Second are children who may be at risk of abuse or neglect. The third category are children of the working poor, and they don't have the same priority, Kelleher said, so they end up on a waiting list.
The Alachua County Coalition for School Readiness is considering a 10-percent increase in the rate they will pay to child care providers, but has not yet approved the move, according to Kelleher.
"We are trying to put together a task force of people who will advocate for the needs of Alachua County in child care," Kelleher said. Meanwhile, if the funding from Tallahassee for the program isn't increased, she warned that children now on the waiting list may have to be "disenrolled."
The city of Archer is the site of a pilot poverty reduction program launched under the direction of John Skelly. If it works, the model will be applied to other parts of the county.
Skelly said the poverty level in Archer is as much as 27 percent of the population. A $200,000 federal grant for neighborhood improvement is to be used to reduce crime and increase community pride in several neighborhoods there, similar to the county's Partners for a Productive Community program, which has been successful in revitalizing the neighborhoods of Cedar Ridge and Sugarfoot in Gainesville.
But Skelly's job will be to take the program a step further by working with local groups and agencies to establish adult education classes, possible van service for residents needing a ride to work in Gainesville, even child care for parents trying to better themselves.
"We held the focus group session in March, conducted a community survey, then held a town meeting in May to present the results," Skelly said.
First among the problems the community wanted to address was transportation to and from Gainesville. Second was a program to provide remedial education and literacy training for adults and youth. The third item was increasing access to health care services.
"If there were public transportation, it would deal not only with employment issues, but also access to health care, looking for a job, shopping, recreational services for kids, educational activities for adults and kids," Skelly said.
At another town meeting in late July, he hopes to present plans that will include service to and from Gainesville morning and evening during the work week in a large RTS van.
Plans are in the works to establish a remedial education and reading program through SFCC to Archer residents.
The Archer Community Access Center is soon to become a reality as well.
"The city has donated land, they have purchased computers, they are going to pay for site development and permitting to put a building on that land," Skelly said. "The Work Force Development Council will place some computers in there as well."
Access to health care has proven a knotty problem, according to Skelly.
"We're not sure we can even begin to address that from a financial point of view with the $200,000 we have available right now," he said.
"None of the things we are doing are going to make the poverty rate go down to 15 percent in a six-month period," Skelly warned. "Things really haven't reached the stage in Archer to say we're really having an impact on poverty."
Learning to fish
Oscar Harris describes his private, nonprofit agency as a stop of last resort. Desperate families usually visit him after they've exhausted all other avenues of help.
As the executive director of the Central Florida Community Action Agency for 19 years, Harris is involved in establishing the resource center in the Holly Hills section of Archer, where residents will have access to computers, copy machines, career counseling and other resources.
For the most part, however, the Community Action Agency wages the war on poverty one household at a time. The agency serves Alachua, Marion and Levy counties. The goal is to help those in need help themselves by providing referrals and services in such areas as employment, education, finances, health, nutrition, housing and more.
"Somebody has to look at the smaller picture, when a person is hurting," Harris said.
"We look at the whole family with an eye to making them self-sufficient," he said. "When people come in, we assess them for all of the other needs they have and refer them out to other agencies. That's how they learn about some of the other programs out there."
That knowledge is power.
"I'd rather have the knowledge to help myself than have someone give me $100 and let me go," he said.
"You know the old adage about teaching a person how to fish?" Harris asked. "We've put a lot of new fishermen out there."
Diane Chun can be reached at 374-5041 or chund@gvillesun. com.
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