Caritas receives grant to provide nourishing food

Again in 2021, the Beaumont Foundation of America has granted Caritas of Waco $50,000 to purchase fresh produce and other nutritional food items for clients needing emergency food assistance. The grant has been given to Caritas every year since 2006 and has supported efforts of the organization to provide healthier food items to people in need.   

“Nourishing food is essential for families to function optimally,” said Alicia Jallah, Caritas co-executive director. “Caritas is committed to offering the highest level of nutritional food to the thousands of individuals that are struggling with food insecurity in our community. Beaumont Foundation is a strategic partner in the fight against hunger in our community. They continue to provide us with the necessary funds to purchase healthy food options for our pantry.”

In 2020 the food pantry distributed over 5.2 million pounds of food.

Caritas of Waco is a nonprofit that serves McLennan County and the surrounding area by providing individuals and families with urgent support and long-term solutions to poverty. In 2020, Caritas served over 40,680 families with emergency food assistance. For more information on Caritas of Waco or how you can support its community efforts, please visit www.caritas-waco.org or call 254-753-4593. 

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email Ferrell Foster at ferrell@prosperwaco.org.

A moment in time points toward a need to care & act

By Ferrell Foster

An encounter with a stranger haunts me.

Last month, in the midst of the winter storm, we decided to flee our powerless house for my daughter’s house in another town. It was Tuesday afternoon. We had been without power almost all of the time since 8 a.m. Monday. The temperature had dropped to 2 or 3 degrees outside Tuesday morning.

We motored northward and stopped a little north of town to get gas. Inside the store, I stood in a two-pronged line waiting to check out. 

A woman, shorter than me and probably not as old as me, took her place in the line adjacent to me. She smiled big and had a happy lilt in her voice.

“We haven’t had power in two days,” she said.

“I know. We’ve been without power, too,” I responded.

“It got down to 27 degrees in our house last night,” she said, still with a bit of mirth in her voice.

“Oh, my,” or something like that, was all I could say.

Lines advance. She checks out; I check out. We go our ways.

So why can’t I forget this encounter? For a simple reason.

The woman and I both lived through a powerless night when the temperature outside dropped almost to zero. She lived in a 27-degree icebox of a house. The temperature in our house never dropped below 52.

People with resources encounter some of the same challenges in life that those with less resources face, but we do not deal with these challenges on equal footing. Not only did my house keep my family and me much warmer than this woman’s, but we also had someplace to go.

One of my daughters stood in the line with me. After we left, I commented on the woman’s situation in contrast to ours, and Tabitha noted that the woman still seemed to have on her pajamas with a house coat on top. I hadn’t noticed.

This woman was not dressed for travel. Chances are she headed back to her icebox and had to wait who knows how long for relief. Still, she smiled.

Driving northward, Tabitha read me a news account of the power outages in East Waco. This story included a quote from my friend, Waco Council Member Andrea Barefield. She spoke to the importance of alleviating the infrastructure problems in East Waco.

Our neighbors who are most in need should be our highest priority. People in poorer neighborhoods should have the absolute best when it comes to streets, water, and power because they already have enough challenges. 

Why is it so often the other way around in cities across this country? It doesn’t have to be; Waco can be different. We can give our best to those who have the least.

We stand or sink together as a community from East Waco to North and South and West. We are Waco; we seek our best.

Ferrell Foster is acting executive director of Act Locally Waco and senior content specialist for care and communication with Prosper Waco.

Five Things to Know Right Now About Caritas

By Ann Owen

We are here to help.

I hope you read Alicia Jallah’s blog last week regarding the numerous services Caritas offers to the community. During this time of much need, Caritas continues to see increasing numbers of individuals and families who are experiencing hardships as never before. Whether it be food, assistance with utilities, case management services and/or assistance with enrollment in state and federal programs such as SNAP (formerly food stamps), Caritas staff are ready to help. If you have a need for which we are unable to provide assistance, we have a long list of community partners to whom we can refer clients.

Things look a little different.

As much in our community has changed due to the pandemic, so has Caritas. In March, we closed our pantry to visitors and implemented a drive-through method of food distribution. Monday through Friday, you will see long lines of cars surrounding the building as staff and volunteers load vehicles with baskets full of groceries. Our Hidden Treasures thrift stores require masks be worn by staff and customers and at times, need to ask customers to wait outside of our buildings as a precaution. If you drop off a donation of food at our downtown warehouse or clothing and merchandise at our thrift stores, you will be met by a staff member wearing a smile under that mask! Although physically things may look differently, our commitment to serving the community has not changed.

Our staff has a heart for service.

We are very proud to have staff members who are truly dedicated to serving others, with compassion and empathy for those who are in difficult situations. All departments within Caritas have an important role in ensuring our clients are treated with the utmost dignity and respect, from choosing healthy foods for our pantry, to a cheerful “Have a blessed day” to clients as vehicles are loaded, to providing a compassionate ear for those who have nowhere else to turn – our job is to assist in any way possible. Sometimes our clients simply need to know that someone cares – and at Caritas, we do.

We understand that it’s hard to ask for assistance.

Often, clients apologize or are embarrassed to ask for help. We see clients from many different seasons in life. Some come from multiple generations of poverty and yearn to become more self-sufficient. Some find themselves experiencing difficulties due to unexpected medical bills or loss of employment. Some are retired and find that their retirement income doesn’t cover the increasing costs of living longer. And this year, many are experiencing difficulties related to the pandemic – such as loss of employment, layoffs or furloughs. Whatever your situation, just know that you will be treated with the dignity and respect that every person deserves.

We could not exist without amazing community partners.

Before the pandemic, we were very fortunate to have a dedicated base of donors and volunteers who support the important services Caritas provides to the community. But oh my, have we been blessed with an amazing outpouring of love and support during this very difficult year! As with many nonprofits, when the pandemic began affecting communities in the spring, we were worried about being able to provide for our clients. It quickly became evident that those worries were unfounded. Individuals, businesses, foundations, civic organizations, churches and other faith-based organizations showered our organization with support to ensure we would be able to continue providing services to what would become an ever-increasing number of individuals and families in our community. We send a virtual hug to each and every one of you.

The struggles are far from over and the future remains uncertain, so we need your continued support – by volunteering your time to assist in the distribution line for our pantry, by donating food or hosting a food drive, or by supporting us with a monetary donation.

The word “Caritas” means “love” in Latin, and we continue to witness love and humanity as our community comes together to support those who are affected by these trying times.

Thank you all as we continue our quest to move our clients beyond hunger to hope.


Ann Owen entered the nonprofit world as a professional fundraiser in 1997 after serving numerous organizations as a volunteer. She joined the staff of Caritas in 2014 as their first Director of Development, with hopes of making an impact on those in our community who struggle in the grasps of poverty. She currently has the honor of serving as Co-Executive Director at Caritas of Waco. Ann and her husband are lifelong residents of Waco and have two adult children.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

Heart of Texas CROP Hunger Walk Goes Virtual!

(Press Release) The leadership team for the Heart of Texas CROP Hunger Walk invites you to our virtual walk on Nov. 15!

Over the past 50 years, tens of thousands of walkers have raised more than $500 million through the annual CROP Hunger Walk. The Heart of Texas CROP Hunger Walk always raises around $2,500, making it one of the most successful fundraisers for a small community walk.

This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic and the need for social isolation, we are introducing a Virtual walk.

We know that it is crucial that we find new ways to engage our community to continue giving to Church World Service and Caritas of Waco, the two recipients of the walk’s funds. The current pandemic is creating an ever-increasing need for food and resources for our local agencies and around the world. Caritas, for instance, is serving more than twice as many families as it did before COVID-19 reached our community. 

The need is greater than ever. Now, more than ever, is the time to give.

This year the Heart of Texas CROP Hunger Walk and some 700 other communities nationwide are joining together in interfaith walks around the theme Ending hunger one step at a time. 

            Here are four ways to participate:

  1. You can sign up online at https://www.crophungerwalk.org/wacotx and walk on November 15 in isolation or with your family. (Be sure to take photos and announce on social media that you are joining the walk! Go to https://www.facebook.com/HeartofTexasCROPHungerWalk and tag us!)
  2. You can sign up online at https://www.crophungerwalk.org/wacotx and walk in spirit.
  3. You can sponsor someone else who is walking in isolation.
  4. You can video yourself walking before Walk Day and send us the video, which we will incorporate into our virtual presentation, set for 3:00 pm on Nov. 15.  (Videos are due by Oct. 31 to be included in the Nov. 15 presentation. Please email seedseditor1@gmail.com for instructions.)

In doing any of these things, you will show your solidarity with the millions of neighbors around the world who must walk to live.  You will also show your solidarity with the millions served by local food pantries, food banks and meal sites in the United States and in our community.

The local beneficiary for the Heart of Texas walk is Caritas of Waco. Founded in 1967, it is a community-wide agency with interfaith support. Located at the corner of 15th & Mary in downtown Waco, the organization normally includes an emergency assistance program for utilities, rent and medicine; two thrift stores and a thrift store warehouse; one of the largest food pantries in Central Texas; and a Case Management program. In March, Caritas reorganized its services, implementing a drive-through food pantry, in order to meet the soaring need and keep its staff and clients safe. The number of people coming to the pantry for food (formerly more than 100 families a day) more than doubled and continues to increase. (For information and updates, call 254-753-4593, go to www.caritas-waco.org, or check the Caritas Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/caritasofwaco.)

The international beneficiary is Church World Service (CWS), the relief and development organization that sponsors CROP Hunger Walks. In an effort to fight hunger and build healthier communities, CWS provides clean water and hygiene training in Vietnam, combats droughts in Nicaragua, and stocks shelves in hundreds of food pantries across the United States. Hundreds of CWS workers are responding in creative ways to COVID-related crises all over the world.

It’s easy to sign up and donate to our walk.  Go to https://www.crophungerwalk.org/wacotx and click “register” or “donate.” You and your team members can make donations by credit card and or PayPal, and a receipt will be sent through email for tax purposes.  Once you sign up, we will send you a link to the Nov. 15 celebration. 

Waco Low Income Healthcare Resources Guide

By Sai Sagireddy

I sit down today with a smile on my face, writing this story after ten-weeks of scrupulous research, calls, emailing, outreach, and one completed medical guide.

I must be honest. In the first few weeks, I didn’t think I could’ve taken on a project of this size. I was frequently drowning under waves of information. I didn’t know how to present what I had. I didn’t know how to continue. More often than not, I felt an urge to close my pen, shut down my laptop, and walk away. But one thing kept me going:

The thought of a disadvantaged person opening a medical guide in Waco, TX, and finding the specific healthcare service they require – free of cost.

This is the goal of the Waco Low-Income Healthcare Resources Guide.

The Start

Back in May, after committing to Baylor, I needed a medical insurance plan.

(For 15 years, I’ve lived in Trinidad & Tobago. Here, general healthcare is free – both for residents and foreigners. So health insurance wasn’t necessary).

In the US, medical costs surprised me. How can low-income families afford this? What are the resources available to them? To me, answers to these questions are so essential, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic.

From that day, I worked to comprehend the US healthcare system. I grew to understand the populations within Waco and how they receive care. Many programs cater to disadvantaged Waco residents. However, no resources are available to connect these populations to the plans, so services are potentially being under-used. I wanted to find a way to bring about awareness – a critical factor in effecting change.

Setting the Stone in Place

I brought up my thoughts with a mentor of mine: Cyrus Buckman, Stanford School of Medicine Class of 2024. He motivated me to work on improving healthcare accessibility in Waco. 

A few days later, by chance, I met Ethan Lowder, WashU Class of 2022. He is the president of Heart for the Homeless, a non-profit that aims to improve the health of the homeless through primary care and knowledge. Ethan educated me further on the lifestyle and needs of disadvantaged populations. He told me about his group’s resources project and the healthcare guide for St. Louis, MO.

His expertise showed me that a healthcare resources guide detailing healthcare resources in Waco. Especially so with over twenty-nine percent of the city currently living under the federal poverty line. Upon further conversation, Ethan agreed to mentor me as I author the guide.

The Work

Over seven weeks, I’ve obtained data on healthcare institutions and programs catered for low-income Waco families. For two weeks after that, I’ve used the information gathered to “binge-write” the book.

The project also has contributions from several independent-collaborators. Juan Marinangeli translated the guide into Spanish. Ava Hunwick worked on the guide’s digital design. Sherwin Newton produced the maps. Hannah Payne connected collaborators. Matthew Gopaulchan proof-read the guide and worked on the glossary.

The Guide

The Waco Low-Income Healthcare Resources Guide contains information on over ninety medical institutions and fifteen healthcare programs that cater to low-income families and disadvantaged individuals within the Waco area. It is designed to be a vital tool for homeless individuals & needy populations directly, organizations focused on serving low-income families, and health & social service professionals.

(The guides were designed in a way for homeless populations to find a specific service within a physical copy, by themselves, easily.)

Moreover, it will help homeless shelter directors to inform individuals about healthcare options, student organizations & non-profit groups focused on service, and prehealth & health groups in the Waco area and beyond.

English:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1SXG6rArR2JTI0Zi0tllXRJa2wexoSANJ/view?usp=sharing

Spanish:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1qQyKN22Ry1jYQUl6KRIS7UPwwVbU3Rqi/view?usp=sharing

Funding Needs

While an online guide format is very versatile for health & social service working professionals, it will not do for homeless populations. They need physical copies.

The main focus of this project is to remove barriers to healthcare. And technology can become a barrier. These guides can be used by homeless populations directly. However, with limited computer literacy, a homeless individual within a shelter would be unable to use a digital version. They need physical copies. Moreover, in soup kitchens, physical guides can be easily used by transient members to help populations.

We are currently actively seeking funding partners to print 100 physical copies of the guide. These copies will be placed in homeless shelters, organizations, non-profit groups, and departments in Waco for low-income populations to use. They will not be removed from their home locations. They can be borrowed in-house and then returned. If interested, please contact me directly at Sai_Sagireddy1@baylor.edu.

My sincerest hope is that this guide will go on to help as many individuals as it possibly can.

Some things I learned

Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned a lot.

I now promote a collaborative mindset towards everything I do. This guide would not have been the same without the input & feedback from individuals: both collaborators and mentors. Collaborations allow us to combine particular strengths & skill sets to create the best outcome.

Outside of organized events & projects, I’ve also seen first-hand that creative methods and “outside-the-box” strategies can be successfully used to tackle a problem or need. All it takes is a leap of faith!

I’ve learned the importance of compassionate mentorship. Dr. Diaz-Espinoza, Associate Director of Baylor’s ALD, has been working to gather resources. He introduced me to Mr. Peacock, Assistant Director within Baylor’s External Affairs, and Dr. Beverly, SC, for Community Service. Mr. Peacock has been driving outreach efforts and has identified essential city projects the guide can be integrated with. Without this care and time, our distribution efforts may have been much more challenging.

Final thoughts

Reading back over what I have written makes me think: wow, it has been quite a journey.

Going in, I was lost. I didn’t know where to begin. What to do. Now, I have authored the Waco Low Income Healthcare Resources Guide, a medical services book that contains comprehensive information about the healthcare services available to the needy within Waco. It acts as a bridge that connects these populations to medical services via independent community-based organizations.

Throughout this journey, I’ve found a community equally passionate about service. I’ve gained mentors nationwide who share my goals. I’ve developed a malleable skillset that I can use within my academics and projects. I’m forever grateful!

This guide’s digital edition will soon be available through several online local and regional databases for use. However, we are still actively seeking funding for physical copies.

If you have any questions whatsoever about the project, if you want to get involved in this effort or future project, or if you are a potential financial collaborator, please reach out directly to Sai_Sagireddy1@baylor.edu.


Sai Sagireddy is an incoming freshman at Baylor University. He is part of Baylor’s University Scholars Cohort Class of 2024 with concentrations in biology/biochemistry, Spanish, and medical humanities (pre-med). He is passionate about research, global health, healthcare management, health equity & health accessibility. In his free time, he enjoys the company of others, settling down a good book, exercising, hiking, traveling, and exploring the outdoors.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

Pressing Toward Collaboration

By Kelsey Scherer

A couple months ago, I was driving through Austin on the way to a conference for work. I glanced at an overpass to see these words scrawled across the concrete wall:

“Collaboration is currency”

The phrase stunned me with its elegant simplicity.

Encouraging community collaboration, dialogue, and connection is a huge part of what I do as a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at Texas Hunger Initiative’s Waco office. Still, I regularly struggle to clearly outline the role and value of collaboration in the work I do. I came into this position with well-intentioned ideas about the importance of collaboration, and yet have struggled to pursue earnest, engaged collaboration as much as I had hoped.

As I strain toward being a part of the renewal of this beautiful city with all of its untapped potential, perhaps it’s easier to begin with an honest reminder of what is not currency.

My privilege is not currency. My whiteness is not currency. My femininity is not currency. These are things which I admit, however uncomfortably, that I have used to my advantage for social or professional gain at various points in my journey. But collaboration – collaboration is a different story, and an entirely different currency, because it doesn’t belong to me. I can’t own it, steal it, or borrow it. Collaboration is currency which may be freely used, exchanged, and debated by all – which the reduced and exclusive currencies of culturally normative gender, race, wealth, or health status cannot. Regardless of my background and experience, genuine collaboration insists that my voice is not the one that matters, and that collectively we can achieve, learn, grow, and heal more together than we can apart.

While collaboration may seem like a sexy term – and we may be tempted to extol its virtues and slip it into conversation to further our agendas – collaboration lived out is anything but sexy. It’s messy, confusing, and hard to define. As soon as we find ourselves patting each other on the back for “collaboration well done,” we find another voice that has been excluded, another empty chair that should have been filled and pulled up to the table. Collaboration forces me to come to terms with what I lack. It reminds me that I do not know my neighbor, and if I don’t know my neighbor, I cannot possibly love my neighbor well.

grand canyonUsing collaboration as currency starts to chip away at the uneven playing field to which we arrive each day – a field which benefits me unfairly, to the detriment of others. Collaboration, however amorphous and hard to define, holds great promise for restoring dignity and humanity to people whose unique voices have been silenced for too long. Collaboration rightly understood is the only way out of the predicament in which we find ourselves. Trapped by isms, by poverty, by hunger, by finger-pointing and poor-blaming, collaboration is like a first awe-inspiring glance into the Grand Canyon. We may be impressed by its beauty and potential, but none of us are so foolish as to think it can be conquered or wrested away for our own purposes.

kelseyKelsey Scherer joins the Act Locally Waco team to blog about Food Security and related issues. She is a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at Texas Hunger Initiative’s Waco Regional Office. Kelsey is also a team member for the CHAMPS grant.  The CHAMPS project aims to equip city leaders, anti-hunger groups, and the broader community to more effectively combat child hunger with the help of summer and afterschool meal programs.

 

 

What is hunger? How do we understand it?

By Kelsey Scherer

Hunger feels like a strange topic this time of year, doesn’t it? At a time of year when for many of us food is available in abundant – if not excessive – quantities, we can easily lose sight of the fact that this is not the case for all families in our community. Let’s take a moment to remember that today.

What do we even mean when we use the word “hunger?” Bread for the World, a leading international anti-hunger organization, astutely defines it this way: “hunger is a physical manifestation of poverty.” They are not talking about the occasional stomach grumble or the physiological symptom of skipping lunch because we’re too busy. They are talking about the kind of hunger that is the result of on-going need. For this kind of hunger, I prefer the more descriptive term “food insecurity.” Chronic food insecurity – which is defined as uncertain or unstable access to enough healthy food for three meals per day, seven days per week – is a nuanced and complicated issue, and it affects 14.5% of American households. That’s nearly 49 million Americans.

But what does food insecurity look like? How can we identify the people who are experiencing it? Food insecurity takes many forms, and affects different individuals and families in different and far-reaching ways. A participant in a recent focus group at Caritas, a food pantry providing critical assistance to Waco-area families, explained, “Hunger doesn’t really have a face. You can’t tell if someone is hungry by just looking at them.”

I6- Caritas pic couldn’t agree more. There is not a sound or appropriate way to physically assess whether a child or adult is experiencing food insecurity, and there is danger in thinking we can make an assessment of such a complicated issue with one sweeping glance. If we assume that hunger is only experienced by the homeless man we sometimes see downtown, we will fail to understand that it can also impact the single parent in the suburbs who struggles to pay her mortgage and to put a healthy dinner on the table every night, or the two parents who work a combined four jobs but just can’t make ends meet. Even within the small city of Waco, hunger can look different from block to block. To more fully understand how food insecurity is impacting our neighbors we must move beyond assumptions and stereotypes.

We don’t necessarily know who is hungry, why they are facing food insecurity, or even the best ways to help. With that in mind, it is critically important that we approach our neighbors with a posture of humility and grace when we seek to problem-solve. When poverty-fighters approach people facing food insecurity as teachers from whom we have much to learn and who are experts on their own problems – rather than as students who need teaching or reprimanding –  we make progress. In so doing, we significantly increase the chances of ending poverty in life-giving, dignifying, collaborative, effective ways.

What so many of us who do community work (myself included) often miss as we seek to attack the complex problems associated with poverty are the real perspectives, dreams, and goals of the real people who experience poverty. Even with the best intentions, if our solutions to poverty aren’t informed, driven, led, and evaluated by the people experiencing it, those “solutions” are doomed to fail. The same is true of programs designed to end hunger and to empower families to have secure access to healthy food.

So, as each of us enjoy this holiday season, may we be inspired to volunteer at local food pantries, to participate in food drives, and to give back to our community in other meaningful ways. But, let’s also seek to get to know our neighbors on their own terms. May we approach our neighbors who are experiencing poverty and food insecurity in a spirit of warm curiosity and teachability, believing that they hold the key wisdom and insight that is needed to solve these problems.

This week’s Act Locally Waco blog post is by Kelsey Scherer, a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at the Texas Hunger Initiative. Are you interested in writing a post for the Act Locally Waco blog? If so, please email Ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.

 

 

 

I may be naive, but not about what you may think…

By Ashley Bean Thornton

I was having a perfectly good visit with a friend at work. We were sharing dog pictures and yakking and laughing when a passerby derailed our pleasant conversation. He didn’t even stop to chat. He just lobbed in a comment about the column on SNAP benefits I had in the Trib a few weeks ago and then continued innocently on his way.

At the mention of the column, my friend rolled her eyes and said something to the effect of, “I saw your article. You’d have a different attitude about food stamps if you had worked in the place where they hand them out to people.” As it turns out, that had been one of her jobs in her pre-Baylor life and, to put it mildly, the experience had left her skeptical about the whole food stamp system. To put it less mildly — she seemed angry. I could hear the frustration rising in her voice as she described, for example, parents who seemed to have enough money to pay for the cigarettes they were smoking but not enough money to pay for food for their children. She may have been a little surprised when, instead of arguing with her, I asked her to tell me more about her experiences working in the Food Stamp program.

Here’s the thing: I don’t totally disagree with my friend.

It makes me angry and frustrated to hear about people who “waste” their money on cigarettes (or whatever) while taking my money via taxes to pay for food. Just like everybody else in the world, I want to spend as much of my own money as possible on me, or – in an attempt to sound slightly more generous – on my friends and family and interests I care about.

So why do I support a system of government programs that makes me angry and takes money out of my pocket? Well, it’s not because I naively believe there are no problems with it. I know there are people whose children go hungry because their parents trade their food stamps for all kinds of things – from rent to drugs. I know there are people who quit their jobs when their earned income tax check comes and blow the whole thing on X-boxes and tattoos. I know there are “students” who apply for low-interest, subsidized, student loans and then drop out as soon as the check comes with no thought of ever paying it back. I am not blind to any of this, and even though thanks to Bridges out of Poverty training and other interventions I can understand it a little better, I still don’t like it. Like my friend, it frustrates me to the point of anger.

So why then? To tell you the truth, I wonder that myself sometimes. I guess it comes down to a few basic things.

First of all, I think we need something. I am not willing to go 100% “survival of the fittest” in regard to social policy. I can imagine myself falling on hard times or people I love falling on hard times, and I want a safety net to be there. Also, though I know there are problems, I do think we tend to exaggerate them for dramatic effect. It’s just human nature to dwell on and magnify the things that upset us and forget all the times the system works well. Food Stamp fraud, for example, is estimated to amount to about 1 cent on the dollar, not perfect of course, but not all that terrible for a system that serves as many people as ours. I believe it is doing more good than harm.

More foundationally, I subscribe to the philosophy that we are “all better off when we are all better off.” If I sell cars, I am better off if more people can afford to buy them. If I have kids, they are better off if the other kids in their school are not dealing with so many problems that they can’t pay attention in class. My town has better streets if more people have decent jobs and are a paying into the tax coffers. My hospital has more resources to take care of me if fewer people are using the resource-hogging emergency room as their primary source of care. I guess it doesn’t seem to me “the market” has a very good track record of maximizing this general prosperity all on its own. If we want more people to climb the ladder of success, I think we have to give the “invisible hand” a little hand every now and then – enter government programs.

Does that mean I think the current system of food stamps and other government programs is perfect? Absolutely not. Does that mean I think we should just throw money at it with no thought to accountability? Absolutely not. Does that mean I think it’s okay for parents to trade the food stamps that are meant to help feed their children for cigarette money? Absolutely not. Does that mean I’m enthusiastic about donating a chunk of my hard-earned paycheck every month to subsidize people who “don’t want to work.” Absolutely not. In fact, it irks me when I feel like I’m being pressured into some kind of blanket defense of the whole system just because I don’t happen to think we ought to defund it to the point that it has no hope of serving its purpose. And, it irks me the other way when anytime I criticize the system people accuse me of being unjust to poor people. That kind of all or nothing thinking seems counterproductive to me.

There is no doubt some people are bad and take advantage of the system. (I’ll just mention that  happens at the top of the economic pyramid as well as at the bottom.) It may even be the whole thing has some fundamental flaws that need to be addressed. I’m not saying it’s perfect. I am saying I think we need something, and I am saying I don’t think it’s a good idea to deep six what we have without something that looks better on the horizon.

If I am naïve it is not in blindly believing that SNAP or any of our government programs are perfect. It may be in stubbornly believing – despite lots of evidence – that if we set our minds to it, we have the capacity to construct a program of social “scaffolding” that will make it more likely that more of us can achieve financial security and success — and that if we do — we will all be better off for it. I’m okay with being naive about that.

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!

A long way to go…but we may be making progress

by Ashley Bean Thornton

A few weeks ago Jimmy Dorrell graciously invited me to give a short, 5-minute, talk as a part of the annual Walk for the Homeless in downtown Waco. What looked to me like a few hundred people came out that beautiful Sunday morning to learn and to show their compassion and support for our homeless neighbors. My part was tiny – to give a little information about the “big picture” regarding poverty in Waco. I didn’t write down my talk word for word, but the following is basically the message I tried to get across. I hope to use this blog in the next few weeks to explore the ideas presented below in more detail…won’t you join the conversation?

Waco is a community with tremendous assets: our location on I-35 half way between Dallas and Austin, the river, Cameron Park, numerous higher education opportunities…the list of good things about Waco goes on and on. We are already a really good place to live, and we have the potential to be one of the best places to live in Texas if not the country.

If we are going to capitalize on that potential, however, we must build a wider base of financial stability among our residents. More of us need to be making enough money to support ourselves and our families and to have a little extra to make investments in our community. Financial stability among our individual residents and families is what leads to building up our tax base and our overall spending, which in turn builds up the livability of our community, and will put us on an upward spiral toward becoming an ever better place to live for every person of every level of income.

With that end in mind, the message today is … yes, we have a long way to go, but it looks like we are making progress. The new American Community Survey results regarding poverty in 2012 were released by the U.S. Census Bureau in mid-September. I don’t want to make too big of a deal about these figures because they are based on only a one-year sample of survey respondents instead of the 5-year samples Act Locally Waco usually uses when reporting poverty rates, but bearing that caveat in mind, I see some reason to feel encouraged.

Waco’s poverty rate for 2012 was estimated at 27%. Yes, this is still much higher than the Texas rate of 18% and the U.S.A. rate of 16%. On the positive side, however, this same survey in 2011 estimated our rate of poverty at 32%. In comparison, a rate of 27% is headed in the right direction. Another positive indicator is that the gap between Waco and Texas may be narrowing. In 2011 Waco’s poverty was estimated at 32% while the estimate for the state was around 18%, putting our poverty rate at 14 percentage points higher than the state. In 2012 the gap was only 9 or 10 percentage points depending on how you round it. (Our gap with the U.S. was 17 or 18 points in 2011 and is estimated at 11 or 12 for 2012.)

If this improvement becomes a trend in the course of the next few years, that will be great news for Waco: what do we need to do to keep the wheel turning the right way?

The following are three broad goals that may help to frame that conversation:

Make Waco a city of opportunity! – Attract, entice, lure, nurture, incubate, develop…whatever the right verb is…businesses and other enterprises that generate good paying jobs.

Make sure the pathways to opportunity are clear and well-marked, particularly for those of us who are living in low-income situations right now. – This has to do with education in the broadest sense from birth through adulthood. It also includes the often overlooked component of educating schools, employers and other institutions about how best to work with residents who are coming to them from low-income or extremely low-income situations.

Provide effective support to help more of us keep our footing on the path. – The path from poverty to financial stability can be a treacherous, discouraging obstacle course for some. Well aligned, supportive, health services, social services and ministries help people to stay on the path making progress.

These are admittedly broad goals, but perhaps they can help give a little shape to our work together. In the next few weeks I hope to use this blog to explore various elements of each of them and to think a little bit about how each of us might play a part in accomplishing them. What ideas do you have? I’d love to hear from you and even publish some of your ideas in this blog.

Meanwhile, this is an exciting time in Waco. If you haven’t found your niche yet as far as how to get involved, this is a great time to do it. Check out the rest of the Act Locally Waco website – you’ll find lots of ideas about how you can be a part of making Waco a great place to live for every person of every level of income.