Savannah Morning News column
Sun., Sept. 6, 2015
Poverty: it’s the elephant in the room. It’s the seven-ton creature no one wants to look at, the 10-foot tall impediment we can’t do anything about anyway, right?
So what if one in four people you stand next to every day in the supermarket, sit next to at the doctor’s office or pass on the new half-million-dollar walking path the city just built around Daffin Park are never going to inherit any money from their family (or get a holiday bonus at work), were never given a piggy bank as a kid or a dollar for every A they brought home on a report card, don’t know how to walk into a bank and negotiate a new bank account for the first time because no one told them they could, don’t know they can get a GED if they never finished high school or were never taught how to look a teacher in the eye and say with confidence and good manners, “I don’t understand what you’re talking about. Can you explain that again?”
They do not have mentors who can pave the way, people who can help them fill out voluminous forms to borrow tuition money or introduce them to people in the know. If they move to another city they don’t have people taking them to lunch and filling them in on the lay of the land.
Poverty, a hydra-headed problem, is all just too much to think about. Maybe that’s why so few candidates running for office this season bring it up in their cocktail-heavy launch parties or talk about it on their beautifully designed website. It’s not a sexy subject; it’s not an easy subject.
But there are things we can do to help that are not rocket science. That’s what Mary Willoughby says anyway. Willoughby was one of the early members of Step Up Savannah, an anti-poverty initiative that is celebrating 10 years – God bless them – of parsing, analyzing, scrutinizing and just plain scratching their head trying to figure out what we can do to even the playing the field just a tad because when one out of those four fellow Savannahians is better educated, better prepared to enter the world of work, then – kaching, kaching – more companies will want to come here for the better prepared workforce that some may argue we don’t have right now. And that, bottom line, again, means more money will start flowing around the circuit.
“We can fix some things,” says Willoughby, a native of New Hampshire who earned her Savannah stripes when she worked at Youth Futures with former Mayor Otis Johnson, about whom she had nothing but great things to say.
It has to be a collaborative effort, “which Step Up is very, very good at, “ she said, “getting people around the table to talk, but let’s face it, the opportunity to move up the ladder is just not there the same way it used to be in this country. There’s less stability in the employment area, more disparity. People are holding on to their money.
“Plus, fifteen or 20 years ago we spent $7 on juvenile detention centers and $700,000 on outside school activities,” she said. “Those figures,” which have increased exponentially, I’m sure, “should be reversed. Yes, we have peewee football and high school football but what about activities for middle schoolers? What about lightening up on the way we kick kindergartners out of school so quickly? One study I saw showed that something as simple as a five day absence from school over the school year is a huge academic inhibitor.”
Willoughby called Youth Futures an “irritating voice back then.” The problem is nonprofits such as Youth Futures and Step Up can only be so irritating since they get a lion’s share of their budget from organizations like the City of Savannah and United Way.
But that’s what they’re supposed to do, I countered. To be the irritant. To make the situation real. To keep reminding the rest of us about the 26 percent – 26 percent! – who live in poverty.
“To discomfit the comfortable,” Willougby said. “One of the best things Step Up can do is keep the issue in front of everyone. It is an issue for the whole community. But they can’t get discouraged. They have to realize it’s a hard needle to push. Thirty people in an apprentice program out of a population of 30,000 in the poverty level doesn’t sound like much but it’s a great start and that’s how they have to look at it. We need them and they need us.”
Poverty: it’s the elephant in the room.