In my last column, we looked at the connection of economic stability with health outcomes, and I shared some data on poverty in Virginia, as measured by the federal definition of poverty, and by the United Way’s “ALICE” standard, which seeks to determine what amount of money would cover the true expenses of life, including housing and child care. As local leaders, we know that some members of our communities struggle to meet daily needs, even in counties that are economically vibrant. Counties are tackling the problem of poverty in many creative ways; a common thread I found running through many of the efforts I am highlighting in this article is the way in which counties connected community partners to pool resources to serve community members in need.
Bedford County’s “Bridges Out of Poverty” program is a classic example of the way strong community partnerships can reap unexpected benefits. Bedford County’s Department of Social Services works closely with the Bedford Community Health Foundation, Bedford County Schools, Centra Health, and a variety of community nonprofits to administer the program, a key component of which is educating the broader community on the particular challenges faced by people in poverty. Another important element is facilitating relationships between community members in poverty and volunteer mentors through a series of classes called “Getting Ahead in a Just-Getting-By World.” These classes are designed to help empower residents living in poverty to achieve economic stability, in part through connecting them with available community resources and also through the support offered by the volunteer mentors.
Although participants work toward a variety of individual goals, some of which may include better physical health, the Bedford Community Health Foundation speaks specifically to the program’s connection to better health outcomes when describing the Bridges program on its website: “Poverty is a key social indicator of health. Poverty impacts every aspect of an individual’s life and drives the individual’s perception of health, self-esteem, employability and chance for self-sufficiency. There is a need to provide those living in poverty the access to health care and other resources to assist families in their journey to overcome poverty and to become self-sufficient. Once a community can provide and sustain that kind of access, people become self-sufficient and healthier, children become more successful in schools, employers can draw from a greater pool of workers and ultimately the economy and the community’s standard of living improve.” The Foundation has contributed more than $30,000 for “Bridges out of Poverty” and “Getting Ahead” trainings, and recently worked with Bedford County to develop public transportation options for low-income residents to make essential trips to grocery stores and pharmacies.
Another example of how the community’s holistic approach to poverty has improved health outcomes is the Bedford County High Frequency EMS User Group Pilot Program, which was able to reduce overuse of the 911 system by providing frequent callers with the resources they needed to maintain their health in a more cost-effective way. The connections among County agencies fostered by the Bridges program helped shape this approach to the problem of how best to reduce 911 calls for issues that were not true emergencies. A team of staff assembled a list of County residents who had requested EMS services more than seven times in one year and worked to identify and address the root causes of the frequent 911 calls – for example, by arranging for a monthly delivery of food from a local nonprofit or for transportation to medical appointments. The pilot has been able to reduce unnecessary 911 use by 60 percent.
Gloucester County is another community that has worked to take stock of its existing resources and connect residents with help that was already available, but perhaps not known to the residents. Gloucester’s Community Needs Network represents more than 85 partners, including nonprofits and businesses, and allows a rapid response to an identified need via email. Gloucester County’s Department of Community Education is the designated manager of the network, with one staff member reviewing requests and posting requests to a master distribution list via email. In 2015, more than 40 specific requests were able to be addressed in this way, including car donations or repairs, emergency housing, a wheelchair ramp, diapers, and a bicycle for primary transportation. Costs are relatively minimal and the centralized list avoids duplication of efforts.
Louisa County’s partnership between its Department of Social Services and its Parks and Recreation Department is a great example of using existing resources to meet a dual need: Virginia Initiative for Employment not Welfare (VIEW) recipients’ need for work experience and the community’s need for maintenance at park sites and playgrounds. VIEW participants are able to obtain job skills and take pride in their work to maintain important community assets, and the program has been successful in placing participants in employment with local businesses.
In addition to helping community members find employment, counties are helping them build long-term economic stability. Fairfax County is working with two local nonprofits, the United Way of the National Capital Area and Britepaths, to help clients meet long-term goals such as building assets, managing debt, and improving credit ratings. Through the Financial Empowerment Center, which is hosted at one of the County’s facilities, volunteers from a host of community organizations, including local banks, work with clients for as long as three years on a step-by-step plan to achieve their financial goals. As the County points out in a description of the Center’s goals, an estimated 260,000 residents in the region are “unbanked,” meaning that they do not have access to mainstream banking services and may rely on expensive financial instruments like payday loans or check cashing services; among other services, the Center can help steer clients toward less-costly ways of managing their finances as they work toward economic health.
Another way counties help residents build wealth is through supporting entrepreneurship. York County’s Home-Based Business Assistance Program, which won VACo’s top Achievement Award last year, supports home-based business owners through networking events, “lunch and learn” educational opportunities, a modest grant program that can be used for supplies, property, or marketing; and a promotional campaign encouraging residents to patronize local businesses. Partnerships with the York County Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Williamsburg Business Incubator, among other organizations, are critical to the program’s success. York County had found that two-thirds of their business licenses were issued to home-based businesses, in keeping with a national trend, and the County pursued a forward-thinking approach toward assisting residents to make a living in a new way.
Poverty is a complex issue and it is hard to disentangle causes from effects when examining poverty’s connection to health, but it is clear that financially stable people tend to lead longer, healthier lives. County efforts to bolster residents’ self-sufficiency can only improve the overall health of our communities, and I know that is a goal we all share. I hope these case studies are helpful in thinking about economic well-being in your communities.