What if someone told you Charlotte could lift 33,000 of its residents out of financial distress, cutting the poverty rate by 25 percent?
Nice dream, many would say.
After all, our number of people in poverty grew faster than the overall population from 2009 to 2014. This despite the fact that the regional economy expanded by $15 billion in that time.
Still, researchers at the Center for Neighborhood Technology say that 25 percent reduction is not a pipe dream.
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The urban sustainability think-tank has rolled out an anti-poverty plan for Charlotte and nine other American cities its researchers studied while looking for new ways to attack the problem.
They suggest we start by re-framing the fight against poverty. They don’t seem to see it as the age-old liberal-versus-conservative question – that is, whether we offer the poor more government assistance or hit them with “tough love” in the form of self-sufficiency “workfare” programs.
Instead, the center’s research, driven by a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation grant, directs us to look at poverty in a much more straightforward way – as the result of low household incomes and high household expenses.
Thus, anything that drives the former up or the latter down helps fight poverty.
Consider that essential expenses such as transportation, energy, food and telecommunications services eat more than 40 percent of the typical low- to moderate-income family’s budget.
The center suggests Charlotte’s community agencies offer workshops showing people how to make more mindful, budget-shrinking choices about how they shop for food, how they might cut cable TV bills, even how they get to work.
Traditional assistance programs aren’t bad, the center says. But cutting waste in household expenses represents another area where the poor can be made less poor. It estimates financial education training programs could help Charlotte residents save up to $190 per month.
Of course, you must drive household incomes higher, too. The researchers want to see Charlotte focus more aggressively on getting poor people positioned for jobs that can lift them out of poverty.
For instance, if the city boosted by 9 percent the number of jobs accessible by a 30-minute transit ride, that could bring 12,000 more jobs within reach for people without cars, the center says. Or, if the city required 50 percent local hires and 30 percent disadvantaged workers on half of Charlotte’s capital infrastructure projects, that could mean another 600 jobs for the poor.
The Chicago-based center, which counts President Obama among its former board members, is talking to leaders in Charlotte about its ideas.
“There is a lot of great work already happening in Charlotte,” Jen McGraw, a sustainability strategist with the center, told the editorial board Thursday. “The conversation around (Charlotte’s lack of) economic mobility is certainly taking place. We’re saying, ‘How can we be helpful to that and bring that work to the next level?’”
Can the center’s plan really cut poverty by 25 percent? We can’t say for certain.
In any event, its pragmatic, dot-connecting approach seems a welcome addition to the dialogue.