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Our Post-Crisis Challenge

by Carol Hardison

Our Post-Crisis Challenge

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Picture by Chris Cureton

May 3, 2012

It’s true; we’re in an economic recovery. We have been for a couple of years. There are signs of it all around in the private sector. Our housing market has started to improve. High end retailers have seen profits return. The Charlotte unemployment rate is finally leaving double digits.

And there’s more good news. After years of record-breaking numbers of people facing personal financial crisis and homelessness, the growth in need has peaked. The number of new people falling into poverty has subsided. Years of growth in the number of new families being evicted has leveled off.

For a time, we were a city facing crisis and thanks to the hard working staff and volunteers who became the economy’s first responders we remained strong. Many of these workers, public and private servants, helped our neighbors around the clock with few breaks for three years ensuring those in need had support. And during that difficult time, our city’s philanthropic and volunteer spirit prevailed.

Today, our safety net service providers, once fearful of going under themselves due to the pounding crush of demand, are back on solid footing. Over the past few years, thousands of neighbors found the courage to seek help with life’s basic needs for the first time in their lives and the system worked for them. They were fed, sheltered, clothed, provided emergency financial aid and helped with free medicine. They were prayed with and prayed for, and they felt loved.

It’s been a proud time for our community in the midst of a veritable kick in the pants that was harder than any of us ever imagined. Today Charlotte has her confidence back. We are talking about building sports complexes again. It feels so familiar. Soon we’ll be on the world stage as host to the Democratic National Convention. This is all great news and it feels like it’s time to celebrate.

A Looming Cloud of Dependency

But before we start toasting ourselves, there is a cloud looming that requires our immediate attention. There’s a real threat that while financial recovery will come to those who were knocked down, it will miss those who were knocked out. For those who slipped out of middle class and into poverty, who found themselves at a food pantry for the first time in their lives and shortly thereafter for the second time, there is a long, complex road home to financial stability.

Our community faces the risk of thousands of people becoming dependent on a social safety net for long-term sustenance. They face getting stuck in the very system that served them so well during the depth of our crisis. Thousands of people are at risk of having this unexpected financial setback cause them to rely on a system of hand-outs and short term support. And for those who were already struggling back when there were construction cranes on every major corner of uptown, the ability to keep a roof over their head and food on their table has never been harder.

Let’s look at the facts. Charlotte has a tremendous number of people in poverty now, currently over 15% of our citizens. We now have over 120,000 neighbors who are extremely poor in our county --- for a family of four that means no more than $24,000 annually to live on and often it is much less. A 2012 report commissioned by Crisis Assistance Ministry and produced by the non-profit think tank, CFED, found that a startling 36% of our residents have less than three months of living expenses available if they lost their income. Called “asset poverty,” this means that after three months of income loss they do not have enough financial or material assets to sustain themselves and they would fall into poverty.

For people of color, this asset poverty rate is 50% in our city and women who head the household experience poverty rates much higher than men. The full report, to be released this summer, found that many financial health indicators show that our city is now trailing the state averages. This must be a wake-up call in these early stages of our local economic recovery.

In our fifth year since the economic crisis began I am reminded of what the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Ralph Smith noted: “Toxic stress and trauma associated with poverty affects the brain,” he said. Today New Orleans is seeing the negative effects of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina on their teenagers who experienced hunger, homelessness and the trauma of poverty when they were in elementary school. Today we have children in high school in Charlotte who have lived a third of their life in financial peril with multiple emergency moves, no beds to sleep on and days where dirty clothes were the only option for school.

Toxic Charity?

To fully thrive again we must press a pause button, perhaps even the reset switch. Why a reset button when what we’ve done worked so well? Think about a time when you enjoyed solving a difficult problem. It’s a great feeling of satisfaction and relief. But, when conditions change, that same solution is rarely the right one the second time.

How does that life lesson apply to our community challenge today? How does the public and private human services system, which responded successfully during the depth of the recession, operate in the next phase where some economic indicators are positive and yet new complex social challenges exist? Yes, jobs are returning slowly, but many if not most of these early jobs are lower pay and have fewer benefits. Families have exhausted their savings, sold material possessions, and some even turn to selling their plasma to put food on the table now.

Before the recession we could suggest a person in poverty add more work hours, take on a second or third job and cut corners in the budget to find some extra cash. When the recession eliminated those jobs, Charlotte’s leaders from all sectors came together and provided the immediate support necessary to keep families afloat. Now emergency aid is at risk of becoming permanent aid creating an endless poverty cycle for our neighbors that no one wants. It’s time for our leaders to talk about the next solution.

Yes, we need to press the reset button but we are not starting from scratch. New government collaborations and partnerships have been created locally. Several innovative programs have been piloted and tested to meet the new challenges. Let’s hold on to what has been created out of the chaos, let’s not go back to our silos. Duplication, lack of coordination and isolation will only hurt those we work to serve. We demonstrated what we could do in a crisis situation. Let’s recognize that the crisis situation is not over and keep doing our best.

We must face the reality that we are the ones who might be inadvertently keeping our neighbors from financial recovery by taking away their ability to solve this puzzle themselves. Might we be creating a dependency on a system of hand outs and short term fixes in a manner that is actually cruel and inhumane by robbing people of the dignity they deserve and the opportunity to solve their own problem? Robert Lupton, author of Toxic Charity, tells us the Golden Rule of empowering service is to “never do for others what they have the capacity to do for themselves.” He says that “a crisis requires emergency intervention and a chronic problem requires development. Address a chronic problem with a crisis intervention and people are harmed.”

A Limited Window of Time

It is time for a broad community dialogue around the best possible solutions to the current challenges. In the meantime, I’ve got a short self test. Ask yourself: Is the assistance I am providing someone quickly consumed, easily sold, capable of being misused, and am I the only person in their life that can help them? If the answer is yes, that’s ok. Thank you! Indeed, a gift card, free food, free clothes or a bus pass are often the kindest forms of direct service. But stop and ask yourself if this kindness is attached to a larger community effort to get at the solution to the real problem the person is facing.

Are there others in our community providing the same service (perhaps that same day and possibly within a few miles?) If so, call up the other provider, have coffee, get to know them. Maybe you can double the impact of your service by coordinating. Isolated, short term solutions to complex problems are not going to lead people back to financial stability. In addition to providing help, consider whether there is an agency that could provide the expertise to help the person maintain their self-determination to recover from the actual problem versus just the presenting crisis.

If you are donating financially to a person or an organization, do your research. Call a board member of the organization and ask them how they have adjusted their strategies as a result of the new social services challenge to help people move out of deep poverty.

We have a limited window of time to help those who have been knocked out due to the recession avoid getting trapped in a cycle of dependency on a system that we own and operate. For caring Charlotteans and local service providers this is our chance to move from quick solutions meant to catch those falling down, to thoughtful, coordinated long-term approaches to help them regain stability.

We can’t let a one-time crisis trap people in an unhealthy cycle of seeking multiple handouts. It’s easy to blame those people who are poor for “abusing the system”; it’s hard to accept responsibility as a community that they use a system that we create.

In this unforseen recession we learned that we have the ability to innovate and step up to a social challenge. Let’s stick together though the immediate crisis is over. Let’s use our entrepreneurial spirit that has made us who we are. In Charlotte, we make it possible for people to live out their dreams. Let’s keep working so that all of our citizens can realize their possibility.

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Tags: Carol Hardison, poverty, economic crisis, homeless, charlotte

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