These challenges are underscored by the fact that, according to the Visual Capitalist, the United States ranks 27th internationally in upward social mobility. While individual success examples detailing “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps” make for great storytelling, the reality is that, when considered across millions of poor families, these examples are myths that reinforce ideologies straight from 18th century English Poor Laws that continue to frame our social policy today.
The negative impacts of poverty—and community benefits to addressing it
Emerging neurological science points to the negative impact poverty has on childhood memory, planning, and decision-making. The developmental differences poverty causes due to inadequate nutrition and prenatal care, parental education levels, neighborhood, and other environmental stressors often limits individual opportunity and leaves too many children, youth, and adults with reduced confidence and resilience to effectively face their future.
Additionally, most poverty-focused organizations do not provide effective, modernized, and trauma-informed services. Too often, the policies and rules for each agency are intentionally exclusive, provide subsistence benefits, and focus on a limited number of means-tested eligible families. They also rarely consider systemic inequities and the vastly different starting points from which children and parents try to begin their journey out of poverty.
On a larger level, communities struggle to fully recognize the human, economic, and quality of life costs of poverty to all residents, not just poor families. The current costs of poor outcomes driven by poverty are staggering. In contrast, a community that helps families move out of poverty is likely to see dramatic impacts far beyond the economic conditions of those families.
An uptick in earnings, discretionary income, wealth, and productivity fuels many positive outcomes for all residents through added tax payments, reduced need for public support, and more profitable and vibrant merchants.
The realization that poverty is a community condition and not the failure of individuals changes the perspective as well as the potential solutions. Rather than programs alone being the answer, local private business, faith and civic organizations, and the public and non-profit sectors all have a collective responsibility to address poverty within their communities.
10 ways to reduce poverty
Taking on the multiple, complex drivers of poverty is a collective win-win responsibility for communities whose initiatives should be guided by these 10 key pillars.
- A realistic and updated measure of poverty is needed.
- Poverty reduction is a complicated challenge and requires comprehensive solutions.
- Comprehensive solutions mean deep-end organizational, community, and people change across all sectors.
- A baseline of equity should be sought for all families and individuals.
- Poor families and communities must be at the center of the process.
- Visible and sustained leadership across corporate, private, faith, public, and non-profit sectors should fully participate in poverty reduction planning and the implementation of solutions.
- A new helping systems model is needed that provides comprehensive support to all families and individuals and does not mandate behavioral participation or compliance in exchange for benefits or support.
- Individual community participation through meaningful employment, community involvement, life-long learning, and functional family and individual lives are important.
- Measurable outcomes and evidence-based strategies should be vigorously pursued, and other promising and innovative approaches should be piloted and evaluated.
- Urgency is needed while recognizing poverty reduction planning and implementation will be an ongoing strategic effort.
Leaders need powerful poverty reduction strategies
County and local leaders can change the dynamics that have limited addressing poverty in the past by embracing these four powerful strategies:
- Engage public, private, and non-profit agency leaders, and community residents in open conversations about the current impact—not solutions at this point—of poverty on poor families and on the overall community through structured listening sessions.
- Convene conversations with funding partners, whether in the public, private, and philanthropic sectors, about the current level of strategic coordination targeted at poverty reduction.
- Review the work of other county, city, or state poverty commissions and visit or remotely learn from forward-leaning commissions and poverty reduction experts.
- Take the time to design an inclusive collaborative model to identify poverty impacts and drivers more precisely, and create a scope of potential policy, program, organizational, and community change strategies and solutions.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused fundamental shifts in our economic infrastructure and workforce assumptions, recent federal investments and current state and local poverty initiatives are steps in the right direction. Now is the time for even more locally based, comprehensive, and collaborative solutions to address poverty in a permanently sustainable way.