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Boosting prospects for low-income

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Jennifer Crim has struggled to make ends meet on a retail clerk’s part-time salary of less than $10,000 annually. She wants to improve her situation by updating her computer skills and getting a job with higher earning potential.

A new, two-year pilot program announced at Thursday’s United Way of Bartholomew County annual meeting is meant to help people such as Crim do exactly that. The $330,000 effort, to be finalized by summer, aims to boost the financial stability of about 20 lower-income residents by helping them develop skills to secure higher-paying jobs.

The program, funded by a Lilly Endowment grant, is part of an extensive report, “Charting a New Course,” released at Thursday’s gathering. The report is a strategic plan compiled by the United Way with input from area education officials, health care leaders and others. It details how community leaders will work together to solve problems outlined in a local needs assessment also released at Thursday’s event.

The nonscientific assessment was based on interviews with 100 people, input from local leaders, a variety of research, and statistics., It evaluates three areas of life in Bartholomew County: financial stability, education and health.

The strategic plan identifies that 21 percent of all the county’s households earn less than $25,000 annually. Many of those residents have no education beyond a GED and no job-related sick leave or health coverage, according to the plan.

“We’ve got to break the cycle of poverty within families,” United Way President Mark Stewart said. A parent’s promotion at work or the opportunity to get a better job will show a child that positive change can happen — and probably will lead to higher aspirations for the next generation, he said.

United Way will lead the new financial stability program with the involvement of perhaps 20 or more agencies and organizations.

That will include local social service providers such as Eastside Community Center, serving one of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods, with financial literacy classes and more. A total of 31 percent of the residents within Eastside’s reach in east Columbus live at or below the poverty level — nearly triple the Bartholomew County rate, according to census figures.

The project will also involve Lincoln Central Neighborhood Family Center, serving a low-income, downtown clientele often needing help with basic job skills such as interviewing for entry-level positions and building a basic resume. Forty percent of Lincoln Central residents are at or below the poverty level, according Lincoln Central Executive Director Randy Allman.

He said the screening process for clients for the pilot project will be among the most important segments of the work.

“We want to get people really, truly motivated for change,” Allman said. “Otherwise, we’re just setting ourselves up for failure.”

Eastside Community Center Director Priscilla Scalf said the pilot project ideally should change more than just a small number of low-income residents.

“We can help (low-income) people all day long with building assets, destroying debt and more,” Scalf said. “But, once they achieve some of their financial goals and they decide to buy a house, where are they going to buy?”

She suspects many of those clients will look to purchase a home outside of east Columbus. So while the client may improve their individual lot by moving out, the neighborhood remains lower-income without a chance for a makeover from upwardly mobile residents, Scalf said.

“It is an ambitious plan,” Scalf said. “But I think this is what it’s going to take to help people and the community achieve financial stability.”

United Way President Mark Stewart said previous programs here and elsewhere all too often have temporarily helped clients — and then pulled the rug of assistance out from under them.

“Unfortunately, the system sometimes has been stacked against them,” Stewart said.

For instance, a program here in the early 2000s to help single parents both with child care and better jobs enjoyed success — until the clients’ promotions and pay raises then negated their child-care assistance.

“The (national) research is clear that if we can provide income supports, people can improve their situation,” Stewart said.

A few years ago, Stewart saw a workforce development program in Indianapolis succeed at placing low-income or unemployed clients in jobs with FedEx and UPS while allowing them to keep child-care and medical benefits until they were self-sufficient.

Jennifer Crim hopes for that kind of help. She already has shown herself eager to improve her situation by using Eastside’s financial classes to gradually put $1,000 into savings.

She hopes to update her computer skills so she can one day perhaps work as an office manager. She wants to see her self-discipline pay off — maybe through the financial stability pilot project.

“I pinch every penny I can,” she said. “And I try to be optimistic.”

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