Jim Mullen: End poverty by first ending hopelessness

Nov 17, 2015

Published in the Akron Beacon Journal and on Ohio.com

This is hopelessness. You didn’t become poor, you were born poor. As were your parents and probably their parents before them. Being poor, you know every day is a struggle, and that if you have children, they will be born into this struggle as well. Maybe what keeps you going is thinking you can find a way out — that you can give your kids a different life. But eventually, it’s hard not to suspect the same fate awaits your grandchildren, too. So you put your head down and do what you can to get through another day.

This is generational poverty. This is what it means to know hopelessness, something an estimated 80,000 people in Summit County experience daily.

But generational poverty is not hopeless. It is mired in a sense of futility that spreads among those people barely keeping afloat. This bleak surrender is part of what keeps them bonded to poverty, numbing them, and us — those in far better circumstances — until it seems there will never be an end to it. Except there can be an end. There is hope. We have a name for it: Bridges Summit County.

About a decade ago, Bridges Summit County was first introduced locally as a blueprint called Bridges Out of Poverty, an initiative that restores hope to the poor and provides measurable, transformational change that can eliminate poverty in our community over time.

Multiple organizations came together to make Bridges Summit County a reality. Now, we have an opportunity to take this good work several steps forward.

That is why United Way of Summit County is set to lead Bridges Summit County, moving beyond our roles of organizer, fiscal agent and funding agency.

We will continue to rely on the work of our community partners. We will maintain the essential collaboration with the more than 50 businesses, courts, social service agencies, funders, faith-based organizations and educational and health-care institutions that has made Bridges so successful. Now, however, we can provide a greater level of resources and the leadership to spread this initiative’s impact further into and farther across our community. Plainly said, we can change more lives.

Why is this important? Why rally around a solution to poverty instead of continuing the triage approach we are generally more comfortable maintaining?

Because these lives matter. Further, their well-being is our own. When the lives of our most vulnerable citizens improve, our community grows stronger.

Already, nearly 900 people living in poverty have graduated from the Bridges Getting Ahead program. A promising 2014 evaluation of the program with a sample size of more than 300 showed that Getting Ahead graduates on average earned significantly more income per month, had a lower percentage of unemployment and a higher number of work hours per week than on program entry.

What will our community look like when 5,000 people have graduated the program? Now, let’s aim higher. Imagine the day when we, as a community, have helped radically improve the lives of the 80,000 people in Summit County currently hindered by the crippling weight of generational poverty.

The foundation has been laid among employers and service providers, too. Thanks to Bridges Summit County, more than 6,000 employees of Akron’s largest employers, such as the Akron Public Schools, Akron Children’s Hospital and the County of Summit, have been trained to recognize and better address poverty in the workplace.

With United Way leading, Bridges can reach the next level, ensuring its current results are available to more of our families and children. We can use our position as a corporate-centered philanthropic organization and community catalyst to provide the leadership Bridges needs to affect lasting change in Summit County.

This isn’t a dream. We can do this. The initiative is already working. Bridges needs only the chance to grow. We cannot let our progress stall.

United Way is stepping up to this task, and as part of that, I challenge all of us to reject the status quo belief that generational poverty is a hopeless problem. We can’t be satisfied with putting Band-Aids on the despair 80,000 of our neighbors live in daily. Together, we can move individuals from a place of financial dependence to independence creating a win for our most vulnerable families and our community as a whole.

Mullen is the president and chief executive officer of United Way of Summit County.




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