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Capital Action Committed to Reducing Poverty

May 3, 2018, by Amber R. Tynan

Having worked in the nonprofit sector the last thirteen years, I have been privy to the incredible work of our local agencies serving our neighbors and community across all areas of need on a daily basis. And while I may not know the mission of all 2,000+ nonprofit organizations in Leon County, I have great faith that the needs of our community are well represented and/or supported by the programs and services available in providing a safety net for our community. Even still, the needs far outweigh the resources we have available which makes programs like the one in this article even more special.

Because of my experience within the sector, it’s always telling when I learn something new about what resources exist to enhance the quality of life for those who live here and how the breadth of the work nonprofits do collectively as a sector is not widely known or celebrated. Just last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World Transition Ceremony as a guest of Tim Center, CEO of the Capital Area Community Action Agency that sponsors the initiative. While I am familiar with this agency, I was not aware of the comprehensive system they have created to reduce poverty with programs like Getting Ahead.

Coming into the evening, I was curious how the program was structured and designed to assist in reducing poverty especially when we live in a world where systematic barriers will always exist. Two of the most prevalent of these systemic barriers are isolation and lack of social mobility; both of which are evidenced in our local communities. Inadequate transportation prevents people from accessing jobs, education, and housing that can provide upward mobility. Food deserts prevent people from getting adequate nutrition which is a factor in work performance, illness, and school attendance. And so, the cycle of poverty is reinforced, and opportunities to break generational poverty are harder to address.

The poverty line is defined for a family of three as an annual income of just under $21,000. More than 28% of our neighbors in the City of Tallahassee live at or below the poverty line. The figure is 22% for Leon County. Both are higher than the national rate of 14%.

What’s more is we are experiencing an increased population of citizens who work hard and are above the poverty line, however, due to high costs and factors often beyond their control, struggle to live paycheck to paycheck. For many, a small emergency can quickly become a major financial crisis. Car repairs and health care emergencies, to name just a few, can plunge these working families over the edge into poverty and financial chaos. When this happens, families, employers, and our economy suffer.

According to the 2017 ALICE Report, 41% of all households in Leon County are below the ALICE threshold (including those living in poverty). ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed – households that earn more than the Federal Poverty Level, but less than the basic cost of living for the county. This means, 41% of our total population struggles to afford basic needs. In Jefferson County, where the participants of the Getting Ahead transition ceremony live, 49% of all households are below the ALICE threshold. Community conversations that help create long-term solutions in assisting to break the cycle of poverty, alongside access to programs like Getting Ahead - are paramount to ultimately addressing the barriers so many of our neighbors face in their quest for financial stability.

Getting Ahead, a research-based anti-poverty workshop developed by Dr. Ruby Payne and Phil DeVol based on the Bridges Out of Poverty concept that dissects the overarching idea that people in poverty are experts in their own situation. Too often people living in poverty are caught in the tyranny of life without the resources to get ahead. The defining factor though is that through this 15-week course, productive dialogue takes place outlining and addressing the realities of the conditions in our community and how they specifically impact us no matter our economic class.

During the ceremony, we were introduced to Melissa Watson, the Getting Ahead Program Coordinator who is an absolute dynamo. Her passion and commitment were evident as she dedicates countless hours with each class of the participants across multiple counties; working with them to discover why poverty exists and discussing what resources each would need to move out of poverty and successfully transition to self-sufficiency independent of public assistance. While the program does not provide answers or arguments for change, it instead fosters innate characteristics for motivation, insight, and planning from those who participate as they assess the potential consequences of their previous decisions and how they may have adversely affected their lives. People in poverty are not problems but problem solvers.

Of the twelve participants being celebrated that evening, five were called to share the growth they experienced personally as a direct result of what they learned in the program; there was not a dry eye in the fellowship hall. Each story we heard was truly moving because everyone present could relate to the struggles, obstacles, and setbacks they’ve witnessed in their lives – sometimes feeling like a direct narrative or excerpt from our own similar experiences (myself included).

Each participant I had the chance to meet correlated their current and future successes to gaining access to resources and bridging their social connections to attain the life they always dreamed of. Each testimony had its own version of struggles and adversity, yet every single participant was leaving with hope for their future while actively pursuing incredible things to see success on their terms.

I was honored to have had the chance to sit next to Ms. Sheffield, a participant who couldn’t wait for the road ahead. She literally beamed with her warm and bright smile, yet she had this fragility about her that spoke to the hard road she endured in her past. It was kismet we sat together because she turned to me and said, “with anything we go through in life, we are always better together;” a philosophy and credo I adopted years ago. Ms. Sheffield is already making plans to participate in the Staying Ahead program designed to help support the individual’s education, job training, and job placement needs based on the goals and visioning they prepared for in their Getting Ahead sessions. She shared that she wants to complete the next phase of the program so that she, too, can pay it forward for other future participants because we are always better when we work together.

Staying Ahead is the second tier of knowledge that follows a nationally-tested model to recruit, train and pair mentors from resourced families with those individuals taking steps necessary to lift themselves up from poverty.

What is even more promising are the reported outcomes of the Getting Ahead/Staying Ahead students over the last several years. With a 70% completion rate of the Getting Ahead program, more than half become employed, more than 40% complete some form of post-secondary education, and nearly 40% become independent of public assistance funding.

My sincere gratitude to Tim, Melissa, and the entire Capital Area Community Action Agency team for the work you do and the role you play in providing hope for so many in our community. This program gives me great hope for the good work happening in our community, specifically focused on helping those living in poverty reach their fullest potential.

If you’re interested in learning more, becoming involved or supporting programs like Getting Ahead, visit http://capitalareacommunityactionagency.com. Together, we can engage in equipping low-income families with the tools and resources they need to think about and develop their future story.

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