Poverty from a New Perspective

By Schroeder Stribling, N Street Village Executive Director

Washington’s “great divide” goes far beyond that of party politics, and according to a new report on poverty, hits much closer to home than most of us care to believe.

According to this month’s U.S. Census Data report, over 46 million Americans (nearly 1 in 6 people) were living in poverty in 2010—the largest number of Americans in poverty in more than half a century. These latest figures are indicative of nationwide, long-term unemployment, and certainly signal the need for innovative solutions to put Americans back to work.

From my vantage point, the challenge ahead is even greater than job creation. I speak every day with homeless and extremely low-income women in the District – those who are struggling to find their way out of chronic poverty. I work with a community where the median income is $2,400 per year, and where support for those with mental health and physical disabilities and other barriers to employment is more limited than ever. For most of our clients, a home of one’s own is only a hope because our city has a critical shortage of affordable housing and because they lack the steady and adequate income that would be necessary to support it.

Numerous organizations have developed creative solutions to address barriers to individual employment, and their methods are working. For instance, at N Street Village our clients face tremendous obstacles – low literacy, histories of incarceration, mental illness, trauma and addiction. In response, our Education and Employment Center helps chronically unemployed women with job training, placement, and retention programs that work. Last year, 75% of the women who graduated from our home health care training program found jobs, and 96% of the women who received employment retention support from us maintained their jobs for at least three months.

Programs and resources for people in poverty are being cut here in D.C. and across the country – and we are seeing the effects. In August 2011, N Street Village saw a 24 percent increase in the number of women seeking our services as compared to the year prior. We anticipate even greater numbers coming to our doors this fall, as the District’s approved FY 2012 budget removes three out of every five dollars from human support services and other low-income programs. As demand grows and resources diminish, we – and other organizations like ours – will be faced with difficult choices as we strive to provide the health, mental health, housing, and employment services that we know are effective for those in need.

I am encouraged by President Obama’s American Jobs Act, which proposes investments in sector-based training programs and tax credits for employers who take a chance on hiring long-term unemployed workers. While our government officials are strategizing to put America back to work, D.C. residents and the District’s public and private sectors need to act in partnership to protect the remaining services available for our most vulnerable neighbors.   We must support effective programs, and we must invest in them now to prevent longer-term and more costly problems in our future.  I know that if we work together we can create lasting solutions that allow every homeless and low-income person to find a path out of poverty and toward dignity and quality of life.