From stopgap to life-changing
By John Faherty
United Way of Greater Cincinnati is not changing.
Not changing, that is, in its commitment to ensuring that every person in our community has an equal opportunity for health, education and financial stability.
However, United Way of Greater Cincinnati is undergoing a broad transformation that is both subtle and radical.
As an organization, it has concluded that solving poverty is a communitywide problem and will require a communitywide effort. It now has one overarching priority: to address and reduce regional poverty and create a community where everyone has an opportunity to become financially stable.
So, the agency that represents 90,000 donors and will invest $51 million in our community this year will start to do so differently.
It may feel like the organization just woke up one morning and realized we cannot be a region where one of every three people struggles to make ends meet, and cannot be a place where 200,000 children are growing up in poverty.
Of course, it only appears that way. The changes taking place inside the limestone fortress on Reading Road are the result of decades of work, years of data and months of meetings.
United Way of Greater Cincinnati is methodical in how it changes because it is the bell cow for giving in our community. It largely defines what the region’s most pressing needs are and how they can best be addressed.
What the organization decided was that despite all the good work it had been doing for years, it still was not enough.
“A couple of years ago, really looking at the data, it was clear there was progress being made, but it was too incremental and there were real gaps,” said Ross Meyer, senior vice president of community impact at United Way. “The services in place were just not sufficient. For a family in poverty, there are too many pieces that need to be addressed.”
The organization and its partner agencies will work with more than 365,000 clients this year. United Way still will help individuals who need help; that will never change. But the help will be more ambitious.
“Too often, we have plugged holes and filled gaps, but we have not changed lives,” said Karen Bankston, a board member who serves on the agency’s executive committee. “If we really want to be transformative, and help people in a sustaining way, we have to look at things differently. We have to do things differently. That is a little scary.”
Federal Poverty Guidelines, set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, say a family of four is living in absolute poverty at $24,000 per year. At that level, a family is eligible for essentially every possible assistance program. There are varying degrees of eligibility until that family has an income of $48,000. In short, a family of four trying to live under that income needs help. It is not financially secure.
Fully one-third of the people who live here fall somewhere on that spectrum of poverty and dependency. Those are the people United Way will target.
There is a misconception about who these people are and where they live. Let’s put the biggest misconception to bed first. The majority of those who need assistance are white and do not live in Hamilton County. There are areas of particular need, but the families who need assistance live in every ZIP code, attend every school and may well work at your office.
United Way’s Meyer thinks it is time to realize that poverty in our region is all around us. “They are not representative of our community. They are our community.”
Meyer is responsible for the management of nearly $40 million in giving. Much of the change ahead will come from his department. The idea, which will involve some trial and error, will be to approach a family in need from 360 degrees because its members almost certainly will require help in more than one way.
A child not ready for school may have a parent out of work. There might be a dependency issue or a history of domestic assault. Another family member may be in the criminal justice system, or maybe there are issues of physical or mental health.
“We are going to wrap support around that family,” Meyer said. “We are going to provide multi-generational support around that family.”
This integrated approach may involve multiple agencies working with a family. It will involve a longer time commitment, and it will mean coordinated support from private and public agencies. It will not be easy, but it may be the end of patching holes and the beginning of shifting a family toward true wellness.
Rob Reifsnyder, president of United Way of Greater Cincinnati since 2001, has worked within the United Way system his entire adult life. He knows what the system looks like when it is working.
“We were raising funds effectively, we were allocating those funds to good United Way partners and they were doing good and important work,” he said. But Reifsnyder also saw the data.
The numbers suggested the good work was helping people, but it was not transforming lives. Poverty rates were not declining. Progress was too incremental. He was not afraid to ask difficult questions.
“Is it acceptable that one-third of the population of our community lives in poverty? Is it acceptable to be in the top 10 in our nation for child poverty rate? Can we feel good about this? I hope the answer is no. It is for us,” he said.
The truth is, poverty is extraordinarily difficult to eradicate. Over decades and generations, poverty can become entrenched and unyielding. It can be particularly stubborn in our community.
Meyer points to the paucity of high-wage jobs, a lack of affordable housing, too many families caught up in the criminal justice system, and the fact that public transportation does not efficiently deliver people to where the jobs exist. It is a toxic brew, and it should trouble our entire community.
This is why United Way is focusing so intently on poverty, moving forward. The organization already allocates approximately 70 percent of its funding to support individuals struggling with poverty-related issues. That number will rise to 90 percent, according to Julia Poston, board chair of United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Poston is convinced this community is ready to get to work, collaboratively, to address poverty.
“People who fund the United Way now have a whole lot more information about poverty. This group gets it, and they are not happy about it,” Poston said from her office at Ernst & Young, where she can see both Ohio and Kentucky.
“This is a city and a region where people do care, and when they find out about something that is not right, they lean in,” she said. “The United Way has always been an organization that convenes people and allows them the opportunity to fund and volunteer. To help.”
Poston also knows people look to United Way for both leadership and accountability. “United Way does not just take your money and give it to somebody else,” she said. “The United Way is about identifying common goals. Somebody needs to drive accountability and outcomes. That’s what we do.”
Still, if you are going to fight poverty, you better take your lunch, because it is a difficult problem with complicating factors. Perhaps counter-intuitively, people living in poverty have the most areas where they can be helped, but are the least likely to see real progress.
Teresa Hoelle is senior vice president of marketing with the organization. Her job is to tell the United Way story. She has a good story to tell, and she wants to tell a better one, a more inclusive one. “We are getting results, but not everybody we serve is getting the same results,” she said. “When you look at it from an equity standpoint, there has to be change.”
This is not always an easy conversation. It can make people uncomfortable. Hoelle remains insistent. “Our city is experiencing a renaissance,” she said, “but not everybody is part of that. We have to talk about it.”
Poverty is elusive. Just as you get a handle on one piece, another can arise. Or, more accurately, it will reveal itself. Additionally, it proves to complicate lives in ways you may not expect. And now there are data to prove it.
Stephanie Byrd is senior vice president of Early Childhood Strategies and knows how poverty can slip into the classroom. “School readiness,” she said, “is the single best way for us to make a breakthrough change for a generation of children.”
Almost cruelly, children living in poverty have a higher likelihood of not being ready for school and a greater chance of not being able to overcome that setback. The deck is stacked against them being ready, and stacked against them again in being able to make up that ground.
“There is a compelling connection between poverty and equity and school readiness,” Byrd said. “A poor child who is not ready for kindergarten is not likely to be reading-proficient by third grade. If you are low-income and you are not reading-proficient by third grade, you are 13 times more likely to drop out of high school.”
Because of this type of problem, United Way will change how it approaches and works with the people it serves.
Jena Bradley, manager of community engagement and community impact, is happy about the changes taking place at United Way. She is particularly hopeful because of one last component.
The organization plans to work more diligently on putting the family first, on listening to people who need help and learning how these families can be empowered to be part of their own solution. How they can become the heroes of their own story.
“How do we learn from a family to improve? We need to ask them: What do we do right? How can we do this better?” Bradley said.
Meyer, who oversees community impact, appreciates what a difference that can make.
“That is a big change, putting the family at the center and building out from them,” he said. “We will lift their voice in the decision-making process.
“We will stop thinking about cases to be managed and start talking about strengths to be recognized and worked with.”
It is certainly time to change. Our region’s poverty may be its greatest shame.
That certainly troubles Shakila Ahmad. As a board member, she realized United Way’s work, despite its obvious merits, was still not resulting in lasting change for many of our community. She knew it was time to change.
“We were treating the symptoms rather than the core issues,” Ahmad said. “If somebody is hungry you have to feed them, of course. And we will. But you need a more holistic approach.”
When she sees the poor in our community, Ahmad is pained. “Even as we are making progress, the number of children living in poverty is staggering,” Ahmad said. “It is very painful to see people falling down a spiral and nobody offering them hope.”
Ahmad believes even the act of making a concerted effort to lift children out of poverty will enrich the region. “It is our collective responsibility as a community. We must face each other,” she said. “It will help us all if we can smile at each other.”
Stories That Unite Us: 2017 Campaign Kickoff Breakfast
Thursday, Aug. 24, 7:30-9 a.m., Duke Energy Convention Center
Kick off the 2017 United Way of Greater Cincinnati campaign with chair Gary “Doc” Huffman.
- Discover how United Way is leading the change to improve lives and communities across the Tristate
- Celebrate the transformative work of United Way in Greater Cincinnati
- Hear powerful firsthand stories of impact and transformation
Why lifting children and families out of poverty is important
- 1 in 3 people in Greater Cincinnati struggles to make ends meet.
- Nearly 200,000 children in Greater Cincinnati are growing up in financially unstable households.
- 75 percent of Cincinnati’s African American children under age 6 live in poverty.
- 60 percent of all children living in poverty in Cincinnati have at least one working parent.
- The poverty rate is increasing faster in suburbs than in our urban core.
- Cincinnati has the sixth-highest child poverty rate in the nation.
About United Way of Greater Cincinnati
- Founded in 1915
- First campaign raised $46,286
- 2016 campaign raised $62.115 million
- Serves 10 counties across 3 states
- 365,000 lives changed annually by United Way
- Sixth-largest United Way in country
- Empowers 140-plus partner agencies