A grassroots approach to poverty

Two areas of Orange County will benefit from a new approach to the challenges of extreme poverty that bedevil one of the wealthiest regions of the state. The areas, or zones, were chosen earlier this month from six proposed zones where poverty’s effects are especially severe, as measured by standards like access to medical care, food, and housing.

Direction and funding for the project come from the Orange County Board of Commissioners, with the Orange County Health Department providing critical support. Administering the project is the new Family Success Alliance, staffed by Health Department employees and supported by a 22-member advisory council. The Family Success Alliance Advisory Council, appointed by the Commissioners to represent a cross-section of the community, will oversee resource allocation, program planning, and policy direction. But the real initiative and drive will come from the residents themselves.

Inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone and, closer to home, the East Durham Children’s Initiative, the Family Success Alliance starts from the premise that only a holistic, comprehensive, and community-driven approach can overcome the consequences of entrenched poverty. Education, especially early education, is connected to health and nutrition, health is connected to child care and housing, housing is connected to transportation, and transportation and child care are critical for the parents’ stable employment. The overarching goal of the Family Success Alliance is to create “cradle to college” and “cradle to career” systems of engagement, so that successes along many lines will be mutually reinforcing.

Recent state funding decisions lend special urgency to this work. Subsidies for pre-K programs and child care have been slashed. The Board of Commissioners invested $350,000 of its Social Justice Fund this year in the county Department of Social Services to fill the gap in child care subsidies. That left only $100,000 in the fund to devote to the Family Success Alliance. Noting the huge impact of the reduction from the state, Commissioner Penny Rich nonetheless expressed hope that her colleagues will join her in working to strengthen the local commitment to this program over time. But it will be a challenge. These numbers leave no question of the devastating effect of state funding cuts upon local social service budgets.

Commissioner Mark Dorosin, who was instrumental in establishing the Family Success Alliance, stresses the concept of a pipeline, a coordinated system of supports beginning with young children. Responding to the state-level cuts to NC Pre-K program (formerly called More at Four), he said he would welcome a request from either of the county’s two school systems for gap-filling support.

An  op-ed he co-wrote with Michael Steiner, a pediatrician and chair of the Advisory Council, notes that one in three students across both school systems are enrolled in free or reduced lunch. “These facts are profoundly troubling,” they write, “because when families struggle economically, there are lasting impacts on the children–health impacts, educational impacts, social and psychological impacts–that last well into the future.”

Citing new research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, NC Policy Watch underscores the importance of investing in support for children and families. It offers these sobering statistics:

There are 358,000 low-income families in North Carolina and in half of them no parent has a full-time, year-round job. And many that do are paid by the hour with no sick leave, no family leave, no way to get their child to a doctor or an after-school counseling session without losing pay or even putting their job at risk.

And it’s even tougher for poor families with young children. . . . [T]here are more than 400,000 children in North Carolina age 5 and under in low-income families and 18 percent of their parents report that issues with child care affected their employment.

A recent report from the North Carolina Justice Center finds that for poor families with two or more children, child care costs are the greatest single cost, greater even than housing. (According to the same report, health care costs have fallen by 45 percent for poor North Carolinians as a result of the Affordable Care Act.)

The two zones chosen for Orange County’s pilot program are a rural area and one that extends through both Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Zone 4, situated between I-40 and I-85, includes A.L. Stanback Middle School and New Hope Elementary, where a staggering 53 percent of third-graders lack reading proficiency–a well-documented early-warning sign of later troubles. Heavily Latino, it presents significant needs in language arts, and school social workers are stressed. Living arrangements can be especially vulnerable, with many living in manufactured housing.

Zone 6 extends from Northside in downtown Chapel Hill to the apartment complexes on the west side of Carrboro. Thus, it includes both the oldest African American neighborhoods in the two towns and the homes of some of our most recent immigrants, ethnic Burmese living here as refugees from the oppressive Myanmar Republic. It contains the largest number of children living in poverty of any of the six zones: an estimated 878. Early childhood development is identified as a weak link. Community members and zone partners look forward to promoting their rich cultural diversity as a way to strengthen unity.

Although the zones were not specifically chosen so that one would be rural and one semi-urban, commented Commissioner Dorosin, the fact that they did work out this way affords an opportunity, in this pilot program, to test out ideas appropriate for each context.

With the zones selected, the work will next involve community meetings to begin needs assessments and gap analyses. Priorities will emerge from this process. Borrowing tools from the Harlem Childrens Zone and the Obama Administration’s Promise Neighborhoods project that it inspired, Family Success Alliance partners and community members will begin to collect data and determine the best paths forward.

In the absence of robust state and national antipoverty agendas, faced with such overwhelming need, it is tempting to listen to critics who say such programs are not enough to make a difference. And yet this is not the first time that North Carolinians have moved ahead despite weak state leadership. In establishing the North Carolina Fund in the early 1960s, Gov. Terry Sanford bypassed an unsympathetic General Assembly and turned to the private sector to launch a broadside assault on poverty and racial discrimination. The results of those efforts are still paying rewards.

As someone wise once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”



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