As the executive director of Community Action Council, a local nonprofit initiated by the War on Poverty, I would like to add some local dimension to the Aug. 12 article, “War on poverty failed because it trapped people with handouts, Andy Barr says.”
The article presented critiques of the U.S. House Republican report co-authored by our congressman. Therefore, I would like to focus on the reality facing our community, Barr’s district.
Every year, the council serves more than 30,000 of his constituents in the areas of youth development, child and family development, economic and workforce development, energy efficiency, housing, senior services and emergency assistance.
As of 2015, Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District has a poverty rate of 18.8 percent, according to Talk Poverty. Our 2015 unemployment rate was 7.4 percent, compared to the national average of 5.3 percent.
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With such a high percentage of our community struggling, we applaud Barr for beginning a conversation about opportunities for our neighbors. If the last 50 years have taught us anything, it is that the causes and consequences of poverty are complicated.
Barr stressed House Republicans’ interest in creating a “greater role for private investors and nonprofit or faith-based organizations” in poverty programs. This is also a priority of the council. As a nonprofit that utilizes many sources of funding including federal, we direct crucial community programs with a myriad of partners.
For example: During the 2015-2016 program year, the council invested approximately $4 million in private child-development centers, local school districts and other agencies across the state to improve early-childhood education. We partner with local utility companies to provide energy assistance to those in need.
We also recognize that we must take a proactive approach to help folks move out of poverty. Barr is correct, “work is a blessing.” Unfortunately, some of our neighbors cannot work — such as children, the disabled and the elderly. For these folks, the almost-demonized “handouts” Barr refers to truly prevent deaths.
For folks who can work, such assistance can be a necessary, temporary and effective, safety-trampoline while our neighbors find their footing in a new, globalized economy.
Moving families out of poverty requires an all-encompassing approach. In 2013, the council launched an innovative program, Economic and Child Care Opportunities, which allows parents or household members of Head Start-eligible children to receive high-quality child-development services at no cost while they work to earn a Child Development Associate credential. The training and assessment fees are paid by the program.
Individuals gain hands-on experience volunteering in a child-development center while simultaneously accessing other council resources that support the entire family. Upon successful completion, participants become qualified for employment at the council or at one of our community partners.
Much of what the congressman favors is already a part of our operational standards, as instituted by the Community Services Block Grant:
▪ State and local communities are stakeholders.
▪ The private sector and faith organizations help direct programming.
▪ Federal dollars are leveraged locally.
▪ Innovation is encouraged.
▪ Real community needs are addressed.
Our approach believes in a hand up, not a handout.
It may be easy to dismiss the House Republican report as a dogmatic campaign piece. But as the people working every day to assist our neighbors in an attempt to create a better life for their families in Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison and Nicholas counties, we recognize that we must try to find common ground.
For example, the report proposes authorizing “social impact” bonds to allow private investors to finance anti-poverty projects, to be reimbursed with federal funds if projects meet established goals. That’s an initiative the national Community Action Network supports.
We would invite Barr and his staff to visit Community Action Council and see how truly critical the local approach to addressing poverty is in his district. While Barr’s position is provocative, it does demonstrate that poverty should be a bipartisan concern in Washington.
Malcolm Ratchford is executive director of the Community Action Council. Reach him at email@example.com.