By Johnny Whitfield, Eastern Wake News
Ever since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society aimed the nation’s attention on the plight of the poor in the 1960s, there’s been debate about the best way to raise up those who have less than they need to lead a normal life.
Many observers of the human condition agree that reducing poverty is too big a problem to tackle with just a single strategy.
Instead, they point to a plethora of groups that can all play a role in reducing – if not eliminating – poverty.
The government has a role to play. So, too, do churches, educators, business leaders and civic organizations. Ditto for individuals and even those who struggle with poverty themselves.
James Johnson, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the University of North Carolina, says battling poverty requires everyone to understand the conditions that undergird poverty.
“I don’t think poverty is the problem as much as inequality. There is a growing gap between the have’s and have-not’s. That’s bad for business. That’s bad for our attractiveness. To the extent that we can resolve the inequalities, we can resolve the issue of poverty,” Johnson said.
Learning our way out
Johnson and others argue that reversing the course of poverty requires a multi-generational effort. They point to education as the biggest factor in helping raise people out of financial distress.
“If you grew up in an textile town where the culture of the community is you don’t need an education, then you didn’t get one. You went to work in the mill and you earned a pretty good living while you worked there,” Johnson said.
Mike Ward, the former N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction and now a lecturer at the University of Southern Mississippi, is among those who tout education as a way out of long-term poverty.
“I don’t think you can overstate the obvious role of education and wellbeing in breaking free of the indices of poverty,” Ward said.
Ward also points out the value of early-childhood education in terms of helping students succeed in school and succeeding as adults.
“For every dollar you invest in early-childhood education, you get seven or eight dollars in added economic activity, plus the diminished costs around social services, health costs and prison costs,” Ward said.
Ward joined the chorus of state and national leaders who have criticized the Wake County school board for making changes to its school assignment policy that will make it more difficult to overcome the problems that exacerbate poverty.
“It has saddened me deeply to follow what has happened in the school system over the past couple years. A learning environment that’s characterized by diversity, especially helps kids in poverty,” Ward said.
And, while education tops the list of ways to work free of poverty, there are other resources experts say can help.
A role for everyone
Government has a role, for instance. Rep. Darren Jackson, who represents eastern Wake County in the state House, says government can be part of the solution.
“We talk about bringing better jobs to the area, but also providing transportation to where those jobs are,” Jackson said. “Hopefully, efforts like the bus service help with that.”
But Jackson stops short of saying that government should be the leading torchbearer behind efforts to reduce poverty among residents in eastern Wake County.
“The larger number of groups you’re talking about, the harder it is to get meetings organized and get people on the same page. To the extent they can coordinate that themselves, certainly that’s a good thing. I don’t know that having government involved in leading the efforts of all those groups would be a good thing,” Jackson said.
Civic organizations can also attack the problem. Jackson cited an old Knightdale Chamber of Commerce initiative to get businesses into schools to tutor at-risk children.
“That worked really well when we were doing that. It gives those children an opportunity to get to know people who have been successful and build relationships with them. It’s important to know that there’s something else out there than the conditions you find yourself in,”Jackson said. Other civic and non-profit organizations, like the Boys & Girls Clubs, are already actively trying to reduce poverty by giving children safe places to learn responsibility and avoid conditions that might send them down a negative life path.
Churches, too, play a role. Many churches have food ministries and clothes closets. Ward says that’s helpful on a small scale. But he says larger faith-based organizations can be really effective by coordinating the masses.
“The church is not a church when it’s not engaged in helping those in need. That’s a basic tenet in almost every major religion,” said Ward, whose wife, Hope, is the Methodist Bishop for Mississippi.
Ward points to organizations like the North Carolina Council of Churches as the kinds of bodies that can bring significant resources to bear in tackling problems like poverty.
“The faith community needs to be involved in the dialogue of addressing the problem, but they also need to be involved in the social action that helps turn the corner on poverty,” Ward said.
While churches, non-profits and civic organizations may be invested in reducing poverty, Johnson, the UNC professor argues, there is an even greater impetus for the business community to be involved.
Johnson says the issues that create the conditions of poverty can be solved through entrepreneurship.
“Creative solutions to problems create jobs and address problems,” Johnson said. “You can alleviate poverty by looking at the undergirding manifestations of poverty.
As an example, he points to the problem of seniors falling, something that’s likely to be more costly for those in poverty than those in middle- or high-income brackets because they often lack insurance to cover the cost of medical care.
“Seniors falling in their home is a $19 billion industry in this country,” Johnson said. Along with colleagues in the Kenan Flagler School of Business and the UNC School of Medicine, Johnson helped create a program called SAFE, which provides safety audits for seniors. The effort is funded by insurance company and healthcare providers who can realize cost savings if the number of falls is reduced. Other partners help pay for the program, too, by becoming preferred providers for medical supplies and suppliers of other needs in the homes of seniors who participate in the program.
Johnson estimates there is a need for 7,000 safety auditors in North Carolina alone, to perform the audits. Those jobs, he said, don’t require medical knowledge and advance degrees.
“It’s social entrepreneurship. It’s not charity. (Funders) make money or save money. They are enduring relationships. If you could do 7,000 jobs that way, how many more jobs could you create trying to solve other problems?” Johnson said.