Franklin County has a 120-point plan to fight poverty, but is it realistic?
Facing about 50 pages of text and maps, including 120 recommendations, few people likely will read all the way through Franklin County’s new “blueprint” for reducing poverty.
Barbara Turpin did. And though a series of community meetings to discuss the plan won’t start until this week, Turpin, who lives in the Westerville area, already has some initial thoughts.
“There are very, very big goals and a lot of things they want to accomplish,” she said. “That makes people feel good when you’re looking at a 52-page report. But is it realistic and achievable?”
Turpin, who had questioned the county’s decision to pay a Tennessee consultant more than $262,000 to lead the plan-development process, said focus will be important.
“To me, it’s better to bite off a small part of it and do it well,” said Turpin, a long-time social worker who is retired from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. “Do something that really makes an impact.”
County officials say they will first focus on three of 13 goals identified by a steering committee, plus one of the committee’s “big ideas” — exploring the feasibility of universal child care and early childhood education.
The three initial goals are indeed broad: Increasing employer engagement in poor neighborhoods by creating living-wage and high-paying jobs for residents; increasing access to job training along with employer commitments to hire and promote; and increasing the number of students at or near the poverty level who experience academic success.
The plan in general shows some forward momentum in addressing countywide poverty, said Jason Reece, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University who has studied disparity issues. “You certainly see the dialogue in the community shift.”
But Reece said officials must set priorities that could be difficult to achieve or could be politically sensitive.
Affordable housing, for one. “How serious are we going to be in dismantling exclusionary zoning?” Reece asked.
Another is wages. “Are we going to see more of a commitment from employers in the community financially?” he added.
Reece said he hopes the community doesn’t see a lot of superficial efforts: “It’s a huge opportunity. I just hope we don’t squander it.”
Economic disparity is glaring in Franklin County, and community leaders have taken notice. Though the unemployment rate was below 3% in April, about 16% of residents live in poverty. Nearly a third are in households with annual incomes at or below 200% of poverty, or $42,660 for a family of three.
“Now is the time to call the question,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. “If corporations have been posting record profits, providing record profits to their shareholders, why aren’t we seeing wages rise and better benefits?”
Hamler-Fugitt participated in a group discussion during the poverty-plan process and said there was “robust discussion” about job-creation policies that provide businesses with tax breaks and incentives. Too often, she said, the jobs don’t pay enough and low-wage workers rely on taxpayer-funded child care, health care, food and housing assistance.
“We’re not going to program our way out of poverty,” said Matt Habash, president and CEO of the Mid-Ohio Food Bank. Habash serves as co-chairman of the leadership council for the Innovation Center, a new entity created through the plan that is to be housed at the Columbus Partnership, a membership organization of area CEOs.
“We have to address the income and wage issues,” said Habash, whose agency set its minimum wage at $15 five years ago. “The only measure of success is that income goes up.”
Franklin County also plans to boost its minimum wage to $15 an hour and will implement racial-equity training to address racism in the community.
“We have to come together as a community and have a conversation around the equity issues,” Habash said.
The training can go a long way toward revealing both historic and current racial inequities, said Stephanie Hightower, president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League.
“When you do this work every day, and in particular those of us who focus on black and brown people, you see the disparities continue to grow and grow,” she said.
Turpin said she’s still not sure the county got its money’s worth on the consulting fee because officials already knew plenty about the degree of struggle in Franklin County.
“My concern is the whole new bureaucracy they’re creating to do what Job and Family Services and the county commissioners already should be doing,” she said.
Michael Wilkos, a senior vice president at the United Way of Central Ohio, said the purpose of the blueprint isn’t to inform county leadership. “It’s about the county having a complete blueprint that they can share broadly,” he said, one that clearly states that “growth and prosperity are not the same thing.”
To read the plan and get information on the community meetings, which start Monday in Reynoldsburg, go to commissioners.franklincountyohio.gov/poverty
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