by Ken Toll
When is poverty real?
Maybe when you see that man on the street corner with a sign. Or maybe when you read a blog on our website. Or maybe when a financial crisis happens to someone you care about.
Maybe, just maybe, it becomes real when it shows up in a national newspaper.
A few weeks ago, USA Today ran an article on the 50 U.S. communities most affected by extreme poverty. These are cities where poverty is so concentrated that it impacts the community as a whole—fewer job opportunities, struggling schools, higher incidence of crime, challenges with infrastructure and health access.
The most impacted community in Michigan according to USA Today? Jackson.
“Of the 38 Census tracts in the Jackson, Michigan, metro area, seven have poverty rates of 40% and above, up from five in 2010,” the article says. “The number of poor Jackson metro area residents living in extremely poor neighborhoods nearly doubled from 4,740 in 2010 to 8,335 in 2016.”
The report goes on to note how unemployment is much higher in those neighborhoods—2 ½ times, in fact—while graduation rates are much lower.
We can react to that article in several ways.
We can get defensive: “That’s not the Jackson I know!” While I appreciate that reaction (and share it to some degree), that isn’t going to change things.
We can lay blame: “It’s (fill in the blank)’s fault!” That, too, won’t solve the issue.
Or … we can take ownership. We can admit that, while we might quibble over numbers and details, there are far too many people in Jackson who struggle to make ends meet. We can realize that it isn’t “their” problem, it’s our problem—because poverty and economic instability affects the entire community. Not just one person. Not just one family. Not just one neighborhood.
It affects you. It affects me.
The numbers in this article resonate with me personally. When I was five years old, growing up on the corner of South Jackson and Morrell, my parents began taking dinners over to one neighbor’s house about once a week. I learned from my friends on the block that their families were taking meals to that same family. My parents helped me understand that the father had lost his job, and that we didn’t want their family to go hungry. I’d never really thought of hunger as a possibility. Now I see how fortunate and privileged I was.
Shouldn’t we take that same collective approach today—for all of Jackson county?
Two years ago, United Way of Jackson County embraced financial stability as its primary focus. We’re building partnerships, gathering resources and strengthening a collaborative push to help individuals and families build economic strength for the long-term.
While this is a big, daunting, and audacious task, I believe that our community can do it. Jackson’s nonprofits, some parts of the public sector and other stakeholders have come together to form the Financial Stability Network. That network is doing all that it can, with the resources at hand. We’re beginning to make progress, but I do not believe we’ll get the job done without significant new resources. Now is the time for all of us to step up, join forces, and get this done.
No single agency can solve poverty. No solitary strategy can take Jackson off that list. But when we come together and commit ourselves to changing the condition, we create a stronger community—and, most importantly, we transform lives.
I invite you to join with United Way to make that happen. Be a donor. Be a volunteer. Be a voice for those who have no voice. Together let’s fight for the financial stability of every person in Jackson County.
Let’s do what we can to put Jackson on a different list, one that celebrates the growth and strength of our community.