United Way takes on new way to confront the cycle of poverty

David Smith United Way Austin

Like other United Way agencies across the country, United Way for Greater Austin has taken on a new strategy aimed at ending the cycle of poverty for Austin families. While the way it operates remains fundamentally the same, a new focus on low-income parents as well as their children will fund and coordinate nonprofits that offer job training, financial education and childcare.

Across the philanthropic sector, more foundations and nonprofits are taking this multi-generational approach, with the goal of helping children do better financially than their parents. “Early childhood education is important. We know that when a child enters school ready to learn, they are more likely to graduate, get jobs and stay out of the juvenile justice system,” said CEO David Smith. “But what happens after early childhood education is that some of those kids grow up in unstable homes. And that can mean that investment in education is not going to be enough.”

According to the 2015 American Communities Survey, 42 percent of children under 6 years old live in low-income families, and according to the E3 Alliance, just 26 percent of of those poor children entered kindergarten ready to learn last year. Smith says while there are many good programs in Austin addressing these issues, most focus solely on low-income adults or solely on their children. But social and economic factors can affect the whole family.

“If we can invest in the whole family and make sure they’re surrounded by the care and services they need, we can change the landscape of Austin,” he said.

In addition to operating its navigation center, which serves as a resource for people needing immediate help for things like paying their bills or finding job training, United Way will continue its “Success By 6” programs, which support early childhood education programs.

In December 2016, it announced the first of its “2-Gen” funding, which refers to supporting two generations of a family. In this round, United Way gave a total of $120,000 to five nonprofits including the Jeremiah Program, which offers single mothers and their children life-skills training, affordable housing, childcare and community support. Other grant recipients included American YouthWorks, Saint Louise House, Goodwill Central Texas and SSP Learning Center.

In addition to funding, United Way organizes quarterly meetings of these nonprofits with local government agencies and other partners to allow them to share their work and identify potential collaborations.

“Getting them in the same room and talking about what they do and how they can collaborate really changes their programs,” said Smith. “Our goal it to change the landscape of poverty as a collaboration of service providers.

“Focusing on eliminating poverty is a steep hill to climb,” he adds. “But ask anybody in poverty if they need us to do is, and they’ll say yes. And we have to do it. If we don’t, we’re going to lose the city that we love.”

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on June 17, 2017

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