Concentrated Poverty Calls for Concerted Effort

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The number of children living in high-poverty areas in Georgia has increased by 81 percent since the year 2000, with 264,000 Georgia children living in areas of concentrated poverty. This trend isn’t limited to our state. A new KIDS COUNT report shows that the number of children living in high-poverty areas has increased by 25 percent nationwide.

Growing up in high-poverty areas is harmful for children. Families struggle to meet their children’s basic needs, and the children are at greater risk for health and educational challenges. They’re more likely to have behavioral issues, be expelled from school, have more school absences, and have fewer opportunities for positive youth experiences.

Living in rural South Georgia, I see poverty and its damaging impact on children and families with my own eyes. But I also have the privilege of being part of the solution. I’ve been working for the past two years with two Georgia Family Connection collaborative organizations and their local partners through the U.S. Education Department Promise Neighborhoods program. Athens/Clarke County and Bibb County were national winners in an extremely competitive process to become Promise Neighborhoods grant recipients.

Having a Family Connection background in strategic planning, forging partnerships, family engagement, and a focus on results has helped the collaboratives in Macon and Athens build on their existing strengths as they plan and implement five-year plans for community transformation.

These two communities are involved in groundbreaking work on longitudinal data systems; crafting a cradle-to-college-to-career continuum of evidenced-based solutions; ongoing neighborhood and parent engagement; and transformation of struggling schools.

“Through the new, geographically focused approach, we are seeing culture change and a powerful new level of improvement,” said Executive Director Tim Johnson of Athens/Clarke County Family Connection-Communities in Schools. Athens neighborhood leaders have been integral in the planning and implementation of the Athens Promise Neighborhood.

Monroe-Bibb Family Connection Community Partnership Executive Director Travis Blackwell is working with a cross-section of agencies, volunteers, educators, local government leaders and residents in Macon on both the Promise Neighborhood and the International Communities of Shalom Program. He points out the need to focus on four interrelated causes of poverty:

  • the behavior of the individual;
  • lack of human and social capital;
  • exploitation of the neighborhood; and
  • political and economic structures.

It is heartening, after more than 20 years of working with local counties to improve outcomes for children and families, to see two communities take lessons learned from the Georgia Family Connection process and apply it in a larger, national context. The work is not easy. Indeed, as one national technical assistance expert says “it is some of the heaviest lifting you will ever do.”

It is heavy lifting. But neighbor-by-neighbor, block-by-block, in for the long haul, is the only way to transform communities.