Progress seen in eco­nomic check

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - METRO - BY K. BURNELL EVANS

Some de­bate whether poverty in re­gion is ac­tu­ally down, how­ever

There’s a mother of five liv­ing in North Rich­mond who works two jobs to sup­port her fam­ily while she waits for her husband to come home from jail. She serves peo­ple food dur­ing the day and cares for them at night as a cer­ti­fied nurs­ing as­sis­tant, a job that re­quires her to walk alone well af­ter the sun sets to a job be­yond the bus line in the West End.

She’s on the right side of the fed­eral poverty line now, set at about $24,600 for a fam­ily of four, but she’s be­hind on her rent, past-due on her wa­ter bill, and wor­ries con­stantly about the son who has threat­ened to end his life.

Hers is one of the sto­ries be­hind the num­bers re­flected in this year’s tem­per­a­ture check of wide-rang­ing so­cial and eco­nomic is­sues an­a­lyzed in the United Way of Greater Rich­mond and Peters­burg’s In­di­ca­tors of Com­mu­nity Strength re­port.

The study shows that fewer peo­ple are home­less, more are em­ployed — and, by one count — fewer live in poverty than in re­cent years, but the num­bers of those sur­viv­ing and not thriv­ing con­tinue to climb.

“This re­port is help­ful and gives us a base­line for un­der­stand­ing the mag­ni­tude of the chal­lenges, but we have so much work to do as a com­mu­nity to un­der­stand what peo­ple are go­ing through,” said Reg­gie Gor­don, di­rec­tor of

the city of Rich­mond’s Of­fice of Com­mu­nity Wealth Build­ing.

The re­port set to be re­leased Tues­day shows mixed re­sults across many so­cial and eco­nomic is­sues af­fect­ing more than 1.1 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants of an ur­ban core and far-flung coun­ties.

Among the met­rics: Nearly 300,000 peo­ple are mak­ing less than 200 per­cent of the poverty thresh­old, which is widely ac­cepted as a bet­ter barom­e­ter of eco­nomic sta­bil­ity than the fed­eral poverty guide­lines.

“If you’re driv­ing a 20-yearold ve­hi­cle that has 175,000 miles on it to a low-wage job, it breaks down, and you can’t get to work, you need sav­ings to bounce back from that,” said James Tay­lor, pres­i­dent and CEO of the United Way of Greater Rich­mond and Peters­burg. “A lot of peo­ple don’t have that, and they’re re­ally strug­gling.”

About $700 stands be­tween the woman scrap­ing by in the city’s North Side and the roof over her chil­dren’s heads, Gor­don said. Her sit­u­a­tion is ten­u­ous, and not un­com­mon.

“We may have more peo­ple em­ployed, but we need peo­ple in jobs that pay a liv­ing wage,” Gor­don said. “We haven’t seen a sig­nif­i­cant change in the (poverty num­bers).”

The United Way found that about 9,100 fewer peo­ple in the re­gion lived be­low the fed­eral poverty thresh­old in 2015 than in 2013, a num­ber based on U.S. cen­sus data that con­flict with other lo­cal analy­ses of poverty trends that drew from a dif­fer­ent set of cen­sus data.

“The big sur­prise this year was around that num­ber,” Tay­lor said. “We’ve got to con­tinue to work to­gether as a re­gion so we can find a way to move peo­ple for­ward.”

Tay­lor said the In­di­ca­tors of Com­mu­nity Strength study is foun­da­tional to the nearly cen­tury-old agency’s mis­sion and helps in­form an­nual in­vest­ments of be­tween $7 mil­lion to $8 mil­lion in ef­forts to im­prove the qual­ity of life across its cov­er­age area.

The anal­y­sis con­sid­ers ev­ery­thing from teen preg­nancy rates (down) to the num­ber of res­i­dents with health in­sur­ance (up) and how many of the re­gion’s in­hab­i­tants have the sav­ings needed to weather three months with­out in­come with­out plung­ing be­low the fed­eral poverty line.

The re­tired di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of Rich­mond’s Bon­ner Cen­ter for Civic En­gage­ment, John Moeser — who this spring is­sued a study of poverty across Rich­mond and the sur­round­ing coun­ties — said the big-pic­ture re­sults of the United Way’s poverty anal­y­sis were not re­flec­tive of what his team found in the city of Rich­mond and Ch­ester­field, Hanover and Hen­rico coun­ties.

“I’m wary (of draw­ing a con­clu­sion that poverty is down),” Moeser said. “If you look at any of the ju­ris­dic­tions in our im­me­di­ate area, poverty is go­ing up.”

The United Way’s 2016 re­port de­tailed faster growth in the pop­u­la­tion liv­ing be­low the poverty line across Rich­mond’s subur­ban coun­ties than in the city, Peters­burg and Colo­nial Heights.

The agency then and now made use of the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau’s Small Area In­come and Poverty Es­ti­mates, whereas Moeser and his team of re­searchers an­a­lyzed the bureau’s Amer­i­can Com­mu­nity Sur­vey data, which the fed­eral agency notes is bet­ter suited to the type of de­mo­graphic deep dive Moeser con­ducted.

A United Way spokesman said the data set used in the re­port is bet­ter suited to an­a­lyz­ing the small pop­u­la­tions typ­i­cal of many lo­cal­i­ties it serves, and in­cludes ele­ments of the data Moeser and his team used in their re­port.

The de­cline in poverty iden­ti­fied in the re­port is slight and falls within the Small Area In­come and Poverty Es­ti­mates’ mar­gin of er­ror, he said.

“Re­gion­ally, we have seen a de­cline in the per­cent of peo­ple in poverty. How­ever, some lo­cal­i­ties, such as the city of Rich­mond, have not seen a sig­nif­i­cant de­cline in this area,” Tay­lor said.

“We also know that the num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing be­low 200 per­cent of poverty has in­creased in mul­ti­ple ar­eas across the re­gion. What this tells us is that while we have seen some progress, there is still a lot of work to do.”

For its part, the United Way hopes to con­tinue build­ing on a frame­work for boost­ing out­comes that be­gins with preg­nancy, ends with con­nected and healthy older adults, and rests on a foun­da­tion of es­sen­tials such as food, safety and hous­ing.

Progress has been made in de­creas­ing the area’s home­less pop­u­la­tion, the re­port notes. A fed­er­ally man­dated point-in­time count in Jan­uary found 662 home­less peo­ple, down 156 from 2015.

The num­bers rep­re­sent those tem­po­rar­ily housed in shel­ters and peo­ple with­out a roof over their heads across a ser­vice area that al­most lines up with the United Way’s re­gion, said Mar­got Ack­er­mann, re­search and eval­u­a­tion di­rec­tor at Home­ward.

“We are col­lec­tively do­ing a bet­ter job,” Ack­er­mann said of the var­i­ous gov­ern­ment and non­profit agen­cies work­ing to­gether to move peo­ple out of home­less­ness and pre­vent them from ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it in the first place.

Ack­er­mann said agen­cies have made progress in part by work­ing to keep peo­ple in jeop­ardy of los­ing their hous­ing sta­ble, and by mov­ing peo­ple in shel­ters out and into hous­ing more quickly, with sup­ports.

“We are see­ing some re­ally pos­i­tive things hap­pen­ing,” Tay­lor said. “Progress is at­tain­able; I think peo­ple get dis­cour­aged when we talk about health and hu­man ser­vices is­sues.”

The study shows that the rate of teen preg­nancy, which is in de­cline na­tion­wide, also con­tin­ued to tick down across the re­gion, from 5.9 births per 1,000 in 2013 to 4.5 per 1,000 in 2015.

That find­ing makes progress in the ar­eas that fol­low — early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion, kinder­garten readi­ness, and ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment — more pos­si­ble, Tay­lor said.

The United Way of Greater Rich­mond and Peters­burg’s catch­ment area in­cludes Charles City, Ch­ester­field, Din­wid­die, Goochland, Hanover, Hen­rico, New Kent and Powhatan coun­ties and the ci­ties of Colo­nial Heights, Peters­burg and Rich­mond.

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