Points on Poverty — 2015

At the Colorado Community Action Agency Conference in Denver this May community agencies, non-profit organizations, and government offices from ten states converged to share the latest information and best practices in a nationwide effort to end homelessness and alleviate poverty. The goal of the conference was to show how community organizations can strategically move low-income individuals towards self-sufficiency and create vital communities that foster economic opportunities for all. In my role as a member of our San Luis Valley Community Action Agency board of advisors, I wanted to learn how we stand in relation to other counties in Colorado and to see what specific information we can use to improve services to people in poverty and homelessness here.

I arrived in Denver on Monday, May 11 with three other San Luis Valley Community Action Agency board members Roni, Tonya, and Ramona. When we arrived at the Embassy Suites Hotel in downtown Denver, the first thing I noticed was a sign, “Valet Parking Only”. It struck me as ironic that we would have valet parking to discuss poverty. Then we went up to the fourth floor to check in. A clerk gave each of us an electronic key for our rooms and to take us anywhere beyond the fourth floor.

We just had time to grab a sandwich and a cup of coffee at the sidewalk café next door. Then we scurried up to the third floor for the first session on the agenda. The four of us crammed into the elevator with a half-dozen men in dark business suits. We found out later they were attending a national banking conference on the second floor. Another bit of irony — simultaneous conferences on wealth and on poverty, on separate floors. On our floor the Crystal Ballroom held all 300 of us for a long, long welcome to the conference. I think most of us went to bed early that first night.

The next morning I woke up at six, an hour before the hotel served breakfast. Luckily, I found a sidewalk café next door just past the “Valet Parking Only” sign. The wind had a biting chill, and the sun didn’t rise. I felt as if I sat at the bottom of a deep concrete canyon. After coffee I convinced the elevator with my e-key to take me back up to my room to shower. To spare you the experience of sitting through the next two days of sessions, I have summarized them below.

One thing I learned is the way the federal block grant is distributed among the counties in Colorado.

From the Source

Federal Community Service Block Grant (CSBG)

Department of Health and Human Services

Administration for Children and Families

Office of Community Services

To the State

State of Colorado Department of Local Affairs

To the Counties

San Luis Valley Community Action Agency

To the Recipients

Local community service organizations

In 2013 the City and County of Denver, having a lower poverty rate, received nearly seven times the amount of grant money than the poorest counties in the San Luis Valley.

Alone the CSBG cannot meet the specific needs of the San Luis Valley that I see:

  • affordable housing for individuals and families
  • early childhood education with an emphasis on reading proficiency
  • continuing education for low-wage adults
  • transitional housing to move sheltered adults toward independent living
  • La Puente Shelter

Compared to some rural counties in Colorado, I think the SLV and La Puente are doing a good job with the little federal funding we do get. Of course, it would be impossible without additional help of local business and individual contributions. Another topic of the conference focused on measuring outcome (results) as well as the usual output data (use of funds).

In my recent job search I’ve discovered that work experience (output) is not enough for a resume. Employers also want to see a list of accomplishments (outcome) for each job. In the businesses where I’ve worked, the only outcome of my labor was that the company did not go out of business, at least not while I worked there.

The federal government now has similar requirements for community service organizations to show outcome, as well as output for the grant money they use.

I think that for community service, this is a good idea. In the past, services were not well accounted for, so there was no clear record that the applicant received any real benefit. Now, though more work is required (paperwork and follow-up interviews), we can see which programs are benefiting the people that each is meant to help. And if it shows outstanding results, then the program could be eligible for more funding to meet greater needs. One of these needs I see to reduce intergenerational poverty is early childhood education with an emphasis on reading proficiency.

I learned that previous research has established that the economic mobility of a child’s parents is vital to the child’s achievement in school. The most recent research shows that reading proficiency at the third grade is also a major factor in the child’s ability to escape poverty as an adult. A research update on third grade reading by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found a link between poverty and the following:

  • failure to read proficiently by the end of third grade
  • failure to graduate from high school on time
  • chances of succeeding economically later in life
  • individual’s ability to break the cycle of intergenerational

poverty

  • country’s ability to ensure global

competitiveness, general productivity and national

security.

Colorado is among other states that have begun to put this research to use in its schools.

For grades K–3, Colorado requires that struggling students be assigned to an academic improvement program, receive supplemental instruction during school hours that is tailored specifically to the students’ needs or deficiencies, and participate in a home reading program. Itsuggests participation in summer school or a summer reading program. For more information on reading proficiency:

aecf.org/resources/early-warning-confirmed

Since I have been working with La Puente and the SLVCAA, I have begun to see poverty and homelessness less as a personal issue in my own life and more as a community issue for Alamosa and the San Luis Valley. There is a belief that poverty is inherent in any capitalist society — a cost for freedom — and a cheap labor source for business to function profitably. Yet there are those who balk at the cost to keep poverty “under control”, much less eliminate it. Thus, our country is divided. The wealthy would like nothing better than to see the middle-class foot the bill for the poverty that enables the rich to get richer. The conference ended with a call to action by RESULTS, the power to end poverty: “Urge your representative or senators to prioritize tax policies that help struggling families make ends meet, not corporate tax giveaways.”See: results.org

On the trip home I thought about what this conference means to the San Luis Valley. Three points stuck in my head: Escaping poverty and homelessness is about economic mobility and education, two routes to the American Dream. Addressing these needs is costly to tax payers. And if the voice of the San Luis Valley is not heard in Washington D.C., then Congress will hear only the voice of wealthy corporations lobbying to cut funding for community services to pay for the tax breaks they long for.