High Hopes from a Boring Sentence

On Sunday October 20, on Section B page 1 of the Waco Trib, a few paragraphs deep into a story with the headline, “Poverty Initiative Moving Forward is an innocuous little sentence that made my heart go pitter-pat. Here it is: “The city of Waco recently hired the W.J. Upjohn Institute to come up with a plan to address income and employment in Waco.” Bland as it may seem to you, I hope to be looking back on that statement in a few years cherishing it fondly as a significant milestone in our efforts to reduce the rate of poverty in Waco.

Here is why that boring little sentence sets my heart a-flutter:

Reason #1: It’s a sign we are taking a systemic look at our poverty situation. – We have a high percentage of people in Waco (around 30%) who live in households with very little income – too little to support the basic needs of the household. This has a negative effect on our ability to achieve our potential as a community. While I believe that there may be a huge element of personal behavior involved in why any particular person ends up in that situation, I also believe that when such a high percentage of residents are in that situation it’s time to look at the environment. In other words, when 5% of the fish are dying, you can make the argument that there is something wrong with the fish; when 30% of the fish are dying, it’s time to take a look at the lake. My high hope for this plan we have commissioned from the Upjohn Institute is that it is a sign that we are getting serious about looking at the lake.

Reason #2: It’s a sign that we are committed to using facts to inform our strategy. – One of my favorite concepts from the 2012 Poverty Solutions Steering Committee report is, “Our work together needs to be based on facts rather than speculation.” I understand that facts are not a magic wand and that we must not fall into the trap of “analysis paralysis, ” but I do believe in the power of information. Facts, skillfully collected and wisely considered, will help us make better decisions. According to their project proposal Upjohn intends to gather information about, among other things:

  • Current economic and workforce trends in the city and surrounding areas and their potential impact on Waco,
  • Characteristics of unemployment, underemployment, and nonparticipation in the workforce,
  • The demand by industry for occupations by skill level,
  • Existing training opportunities for the city’s high-demand occupations,
  • the negative economic impact of poverty.

It is not a trivial exercise to collect this information, and I doubt we could do it very expeditiously without bringing in some hired help. I’m excited that this project will afford us the opportunity to, in a relatively short time, build a solid base of information to inform our strategy for moving forward.

Reason #3: I’m glad we are bringing in some outside perspective. – I have a deep respect for the brainpower that the people of Waco, especially our city leadership, have put toward the issue of reducing our rate of poverty, and one thing I particularly respect is that they have recognized the benefit of bringing in some ideas from the wider world. I didn’t know anything about the Upjohn Institute before reading their project proposal, but after reading the proposal and checking out their website, they look like rock stars to me. They have been studying employment and unemployment since 1945. The list of current and recent research projects on their website is long and wide-ranging, and the cities with whom they have worked stretch from coast to coast. I am looking forward to hearing how these years of practice and the expertise born from this experience can benefit us!

So, Welcome to Waco, Upjohn Institute! You can count me as one of your groupies! I’m excited to see you coming. I hope we pick every bit of useful information out of your big brains and put it to good use!

upjohn picIf you would like to learn more about this project, make plans to attend the Greater Waco Education Summit. George A. Erickcek, Senior Regional Analyst for the Upjohn Institute will be the keynote speaker at the dinner on Wednesday night, November 13. Hope to see you there!

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