City Life

Lead by lifting up

Digging deep into the root causes of poverty

I love this place, and all of its potential.
Beyond its natural beauty, what I love most is the united drive that this community has to be the best place to live, for all, reducing disparities and increasing the well-being of every individual.
I’ve been in my job at United Way of Dane County for a little over a year. On one hand, I am more inspired than ever. The tools and people are in place to focus on systemic issues that keep us from reaching our equity and economic goals. On the other hand, I’m not as naïve as I once was. Conversations that I thought would be more collegial, more collaborative and more about the common good often come down to competing interests and wrestling over funding. Positive intentions can get lost along the way, and the big picture can be obscured.
So what are the issues, and what will it take to make Dane County the best place to live for all?
Let’s start with our children. There are 16,000 of them who live in poverty and who, by the way, have no idea they live in poverty. They laugh, play, sing and dance just like kids with more resources. While they are just as capable and full of potential as their middle- and upper-income peers, being in poverty means they will have to work much harder because they have fewer resources and networks. Though they may not be aware that they live in poverty, they are shaped by family stressors such as parents working many jobs and making tough decisions about how to get food on the table and stretch precious dollars when the bills come in. That stress affects each and every one of these children and takes a toll on how they are shaped.
When I talk to these families, their will and drive are there. Their resilience and entrepreneurship are off the charts. And the desire to do right by their families and our community is unquestionable. And yet, it is hard to get ahead.
No one is asking to get rich. No one is asking to jump ahead in the line. Work, high expectations and coaching are expected. But what we think and believe about those in poverty doesn’t always match with that sense of drive and work ethic. 
One mom recently said to me, “I am a single mother of three. Because I have a job it seems a lot of doors are being closed in my face. Because I have so many bills, I’m working more hours. More hours means more money and less assistance. Not to mention less time with my kids. I feel like I am killing myself to get nowhere.” She makes $29,000 a year, just $5,000 more than the federal poverty benchmark.
Another said, “I don’t want to have to break rules [like paying my bills late]. I’ll know things are better when I won’t have to break the rules to survive.”
To survive. Do we want our young families only to survive? Or do we want them stable so they can build toward self-sufficiency? 
We can’t program people out of poverty. Programs are important and a lift when times are really tough, but to really drill into the root causes of poverty, we need to get closer to one another and understand where our interests intersect.
I think part of what keeps us apart is the guilt of having more when someone has less. We avert our eyes or get angry when we see the woman on the corner with a sign. But most people with less don’t resent you for having more; they simply want access to earn more for themselves.
Let’s have conversations, figure out where we’ve got common ground and worry less about who is in charge of change. This is about us as a community. We all know no single entity can change an entire community, but that it is the collective actions of individuals and organizations that actually create change. Do we need leadership? You bet. But we need leadership to lift others up, to provide access and resource links to succeed. We need high expectations and coaching that goes along with building families, communities, businesses and society. And, we need understanding of what does and doesn’t work and why, to maximize use of resources and positive results.
Let’s have conversations, figure out where we’ve got common ground and worry less about who is in charge of change.
While I may be less naïve, I think that is actually a good thing. My eyes are wide open and I am more committed than ever to doing my part to help Dane County achieve and exceed its greatest aspirations. These issues aren’t Republican or Democrat or Green or Independent. They aren’t black, Latino, Asian, native or white. They aren’t straight or gay. They aren’t young or old. They are us. And we should focus on providing opportunities so all can succeed in school, work and life. Together, we can do this.


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