Thought Force releases recommendations to reduce poverty
BY TODD LUCK
The Winston-Salem Poverty Thought Force presented its recommendations to reduce local poverty on Monday, Feb. 13.
“This is the beginning, but hopefully, maybe five years or six years from now, we can look back and say this is the day we started making a change here in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County,” said Mayor Allen Joines, during the event at City Hall.
Joines announced the creation of the Thought Force in October 2015 to find ideas to decrease the city’s poverty rate, which was 23 percent in 2015. The 22-member committee is chaired by Wake Forest Provost Rogan Kersh and is made of community leaders. This includes City Council Member Derwin Montgomery, who heads the Bethesda Center for the Homeless, who said poverty was a great “moral challenge” for the city and county.
Kersh said the group spent more time talking to those in the community than meeting with themselves. It held five World Cafe meetings to solicit ideas from the public, which the committee narrowed down. A sixth cafe was held to get feedback on their recommendations from those who’ve lived in poverty.
The Thought Force’s report was approved by city committees this week with plans for the full City Council to approve it next week. Then, city staff will work to turn the recommendations into action. It will also go before the Forsyth County commissioners and groups like the United Way. Funding and implementation of the recommendations are still in the planning stages.
“We don’t want it to become a report on the shelf, but actually a blueprint for implementation,“ said Kersh.
The final report made several overarching recommendations including better coordination among the many existing local anti-poverty initiatives for a comprehensive approach. This would include hiring a poverty czar to oversee the implementation of the Thought Force’s plan. It also recommended improving transportation and join-ing national anti-poverty initiatives that would bring resources to the city.
There were also 56 specific recommendations in five key areas: education, health, housing, food insecurity and employment. Some require action from the city or even state and federal governments. Many others call upon the current work by local non-profits to be expanded on.
For education, it recommends universal pre-K, saying it should build on the work various local groups have done with kindergarten readiness pro-grams. It recommends higher Pre-K teacher pay, but says that will require state or federal action. It also recommended that churches and local universities adopt elementary schools, more mentoring and tutoring, improved transportation to schools and other learning centers, and high school career days with recruiters and volunteers from various professions.
For health, it recommended expanding Medicaid, which would require action from the N.C. General Assembly. It recommended subsidizing food stamps, noting that federal and state funds may be available for such a program, along with a modest local tax incentive for employers offering family leave. Other recommendations included prenatal care for non-English speakers, expanding the WIC Program, health education for young children, mobile care clinics, increased pro bono medical care and improved bus routes to health clinics and supermarkets.
For housing, it recommended a supportive housing program for the mentally ill and other vulnerable populations, housing navigators to help families maintain permanent housing, and teaming public housing residents with volunteers who have resources. Other recommendations included improved bus stops and routes in poor areas, more affordable housing, fines and incentives to make landlords do maintenance, financial literacy classes for public housing residents, and banning the criminal record from housing applications, though backgrounds could be checked later in the process.
For food insecurity, it recommend a universal school breakfast program, which would require state or federal funds, and expanding the school food backpack program for low income students. Other recommendations included expanding free meal programs, more community gardens, increased nutrition education, using social media to promote anti-hunger efforts, matching federal grants for food stamp use at famers’ markets, and encouraging stores and food trucks that sell fruits and vegetables in food deserts.
For employment, it recommended paid apprenticeships for high school students, aligning bus routes with work schedules, and more financial literacy programs. Other recommendations included aligning skills training with employer needs, incentivizing employers to turn seasonal employment to year-round work, publicizing and incentivizing second-chance employment of ex-offenders, subsiding childcare for job seeking parents and encouraging students to pursue skill-based jobs.