According to the latest U.S. Census five-year estimates, the poverty rate in Springfield dropped from 25.7% – the five-year estimate in 2015 – to 22.9% at the end of 2019, a milestone announced in March by several agencies. That’s roughly halfway toward a collective goal set in 2015 to reduce Springfield’s poverty rate 5 percentage points by 2025.
It’s a sign that local systems and programs, along with efforts by various nonprofits, are making a difference in our community – good news, says Titus Williams, president of Prosperiti Partners LLC. That shows even more progress considering the Census’ 2013 Access American Community Survey report showed Springfield’s poverty level had peaked at 29.7%, the highest in a 10-year period, according to data gathered by the Prosper Springfield initiative.
But there’s still work to be done when nearly one-fourth of the community’s residents live in poverty. Williams feels confidence in forward-thinking agencies’ ability to help that reduction continue.
“We have the ability to bridge the gap,” he says.
As a developer who owns multi- and single-family rental units, Williams is familiar with working class community members. It often only takes one big medical or car repair bill to set someone back.
“We’re seeing lots of people in need of housing, and people who are being affected the most are people that have poor credit or questionable backgrounds and issues with income,” Williams says. “Most people don’t have the ability or understanding of what credit is. And then they can’t pay for it, so they get back in a situation where they are now in collections.”
He thinks the answer is life skill and personal finance education – “to learn how to be a self-sustaining citizen,” he says.
Area agencies agree – one reason Prosper Springfield was launched as a response to the 2015 Impacting Poverty Commission’s Call to Action Report. An initiative under the umbrella of Community Partnership of the Ozarks, it connects area efforts – including education – to reduce poverty. And it’s making a difference.
“Building systems across the community to make sure everyone is going the same direction has, I think, been probably key. And that’s primarily due to Prosper Springfield’s work; making sure that we’ve got services provided right where people can reach them,” says Janet Dankert, president and CEO of Community Partnership.
It’s about making sure agencies that service the under-resourced are working together in a collaborative and consistent way, she says. Those efforts run the gamut from meeting immediate needs like food, clothing and shelter to helping people improve their situations with education and opportunities.
The goals for Prosper Springfield are twofold, says Francine Pratt, the initiative’s executive director. In addition to reducing the poverty rate by 5%, officials want to increase post-secondary attainment to 60% communitywide by 2025. (In 2017, Greene County had 40.3% attainment; it was 47.9% at the end of 2019.) Providing education to boost job skills is an important part of that equation. But often life skills need to come first.
“I always like to go to what I call the baseline. Before someone can even consider returning to school or getting additional job skills, they have to take care of their basic skills at home,” Pratt says.
Organizations with wraparound services help families and individuals become self-sustaining. When they are ready to start improving work skills, get more education and look at job opportunities, Pratt says the Missouri Job Center and other resources help people obtain a high school equivalency, go on to a community or four-year college, or perhaps an apprenticeship program.
Another contributing factor to the reduced rate has been a stronger economy, Pratt says. In addition, private, public and social sectors have been more intentional and inclusive about providing resource access to ethnic and minority groups, including those in the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities.
Dankert says one goal that came out of the Impacting Poverty Commission was to implement a communitywide case management, or coaching, system.
“That’s not anything we’ve been able to achieve to this point,” she says. “It’s really providing that direct one-on-one support system to folks who are trying to get out of poverty and who are trying to improve their lives.”
On a smaller scale, the RISE initiative led by the Drew Lewis Foundation at the Fairbanks is doing just that. RISE – Reaching Independence through Support and Education – is a one-year curriculum that focuses on 10 key areas, including housing, child care, financial planning, education, job training and finding solutions to problems that keep participants from improving their circumstances. The Springfield Dream Center, OACAC, Catholic Charities, CPO and other nonprofits offer educational and life-skill programs too.
“Having those kind of hubs that help people right where they live, I think, has been a big step,” Dankert says.
That includes CPO’s new Center for Hope which helps fill existing gaps and reduce barriers. The center opened in 2020, so it had no bearing on the 2019 poverty rate data, but it’s expected to make a difference going forward.
“The community realized that we needed a centralized place for housing resources as well as homeless prevention resources,” Dankert says.
At Center for Hope, more than 15 agency resources are housed under the same roof to help people address a variety of needs, including mental health, legal, financial, safety, nutrition and social services. One program helps people find affordable housing. Another, the Springfield Community Land Trust, even helps people buy a first home. One important program is Making Sense of Money, which helps participants learn to budget, start a savings account and plan for emergencies.
Williams and others wonder if stimulus money or child tax credits will also impact the poverty rate in years to come. It’s too soon to tell, Pratt says. But one volunteer member of their data workgroup conducted a deep analysis on the child tax credit because it’s most likely to be sustainable. The data concludes that over the next five years those credits could drastically reduce poverty in our community and beyond, she says. The poverty rate should continue to trend downward too as community agencies move forward on efforts to build better infrastructure systems.
“We still have a lot of work to do because it’s going to take time,” Pratt says. “The data shows that if we continue this, we’re going to get the results that we need long term.”
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The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in May the all-items inflation index surged 8.6% over the past year, the highest increase since 1981.