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More than an assignment

Jan. 3, 2011

(Editorial column by Bill Whitaker printed in the Dec. 26, 2010, issue of the Waco Tribune-Herald, available online to paid subscribers only)

When the Waco City Council next month appoints a steering committee to forge an aggressive strategy to fight poverty in our city, it'll operate at least partially on the findings, conclusions and advice of 17 graduate students who aren't originally from Waco or even Central Texas.

Yet from what I hear, these students sure made up for lost time.

North Waco council member Toni Herbert even urged her colleagues to delay appointing the committee till they could hear from diligent students in Baylor University's School of Social Work. They spent two and half months surveying other communities for strategies to combat a problem that has long tarnished Waco.

Strengthening Neigh. panel
Two and a half months might not seem enough time to become adequately versed on this complex problem. Yet Waco Mayor Jim Bush told me, following the council's meeting with Baylor students this month, that he was making battling poverty his chief priority in 2011. City Manager Larry Groth marveled at the students' abilities to pierce the subject so deeply in so limited a time.

As even a short drive through our city reveals, poverty is widespread - and often foolishly ignored. Census data indicate that Waco has a whopping poverty rate of 26 percent. For the past 10 years, it has had the fifth-highest poverty rate among Texas cities, with a poverty rate for children as high as 31 percent.

Let's face it. Many of us don't think much about poverty except during the holiday season when bell ringers are everywhere and pastors lecture us about charity and Christ's pioneering work with the unfortunate. Some of us doing well are even quick to condemn the poor as indolent deadbeats and deceitful freeloaders. But whether you're an ambitious businessman looking out for the bottom line or a civic leader who truly envisions great things for Waco and all its people, you should reflect mightily on this problem. It impacts us all.

"What is the cost of poverty to us as a city, as a region?" said Dr. Gaynor Yancey, professor of social work at Baylor and a project leader. "There's always a cost to poverty that goes beyond dollars and cents. Is it costing us in, say, a business that chooses not to come here because of it?"

Indeed a city that doesn't address its most unfortunate residents isn't likely to impress outside industry that offers high-paying, high-tech jobs - something the Greater Waco Community Education Alliance has discovered in its own research.

Students used the federal poverty line in their work. It varies by year and family size, but for a family of four the line is $22,050. You might describe these folks as one paycheck away from disaster.

Kasey Ashenfelter, 24, of El Paso, a class coordinator in the project, acknowledged the short period for the assignment but said students were engaged by the plight of those living so close to the edge in terms of despair and how it threatened their families, outlook and lives.

"There was never a point where it was just an assignment to me," he told me.

Students suggested cities worthy of study, such as Boston's Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, which over the past 25 years aggressively cleaned up neighborhood blight and forged dynamic patrnerships with business and nonprofit groups, always with the elimination of poverty in mind.

Students also advised that four subcommittees be formed to help in such endeavors as enlisting and coordinating different nonprofit groups and governmenetal agencies in the mission, plus spurring job training

One thing students stressed was the importance of health neighborhoods. And they warned against business leaders and city officials being the only ones on subcommittees. It's crucial that many who live in poverty be empowered to fight it.

Students were impressed by citizens in the Waco {Poverty Solutions Group tapped earlier to study the problem and the Greater Waco Community Education Alliance, whose very success depends on cracking poverty and getting parents more involved in their children's lives.

Taking action is now up to the rest of us as a community, but some of the Baylor students vowed to stay involved. As Kasey Ashenfelter says, the business of fighting poverty "is much bigger than just us."