Community leaders are getting behind a new program, Pathways to Prosperity, to help more Bartholomew County escape the clutches of poverty.

United Way of Bartholomew County leaders announced the initiative, along with a 15-year commitment to the cause, at the agency’s annual meeting Tuesday at Factory 12 Event Loft in downtown Columbus.

Mark Stewart, president of the United Way of Bartholomew County, pledged “to do everything that we can to tackle generational poverty” while working alongside a host of others in a community-wide effort.

Currently, 11.9 percent of Bartholomew County residents live below the poverty level, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics from a five-year period ending in 2015. That’s slightly lower than the statewide figure of 14.5 percent.

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The county ranks 40th among 92 Indiana counties in the percentage of residents living below the poverty level, Stewart said.

“This is not a new strategy for United Way,” Stewart said. “This is the natural evolution of our financial stability work that we embarked on three years ago.”

That effort has consisted of United Way leading a community focus on boosting residents’ financial stability, education by at least one level and general health in order to make people more self-sufficient. That focus continues under the leadership of the Community Education Coalition and other agencies.

A Cummins Foundation grant of $100,000 will help fund the first two years of the new work, Stewart told an audience of about 300.

“In our community, we want to do everything that we can to ensure that the American Dream is alive and well,” Stewart said. “We want to be a community where people can indeed pull themselves up by the bootstraps.”

He cited the example of a local resident, 37-year-old Nathan Wilson, who went from sleeping in his car two years ago to preparing to enroll at Ivy Tech Community College while now working as Sans Souci’s operations manager, thanks to perseverance and several United Way agencies’ help.

Stewart introduced Wilson to the crowd, which gave him a standing ovation.

More than 600 local families currently are traveling their own road to some level of self-sufficiency via help from agencies such as Sans Souci, Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center, Human Services Inc. and Turning Point Domestic Violence Services, Stewart said.

One challenge that local agencies have to navigate with local workers’ situations is the reality that success and pay raises often will then force them to lose insurance assistance or other benefits that help them make ends meet.

“Sometimes, the ‘cliff effect’ is so steep that working families actually have a rational incentive not to seek raises or promotions,” Stewart said.

He is optimistic that Bartholomew County can improve its standing statewide regarding poverty.

“We are a first-class community,” Stewart said. “There is no reason we should settle for middle of the pack on such an important community indicator.

“We have lots of opportunity for improvement. As a community, we must do more.”

Pull Quote

“In our community, we want to do everything that we can to ensure that the American Dream is alive and well.”

— Mark Stewart, president, United Way of Bartholomew County

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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.