We've all seen the news stories and read the reports: People across the country are struggling to makes ends meet. It seems as though every month there are two or three studies or opinion polls that reaffirm what we at Northwest Area Foundation have witnessed ourselves — a growing number of Americans at risk of losing their homes or jobs, children and families without access to affordable health care, and a growing racial dimension to the complex issue we call poverty.
Every year, dozens of experts, nonprofit and governmental organizations, and news operations highlight the problem of poverty among our nation's children, the elderly, and minority groups, as well as in different geographic areas. The most recent U.S. Census Bureau report indicates that nearly 37 million men, women, and children fall below the poverty line $21,041 a year for a family of four.
And who can forget the shocking images that were beamed around the world in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, or the public's confusion and anger at the conditions they saw and the government's response to the disaster?
At the NWAF, our experience over the years has taught us that residents of even small communities with high levels of poverty can, if assisted, marshal the ability to persevere and move forward. Looking back almost three years later, however, it's clear that while the news coverage of Katrina captured the stark reality of people trapped in poverty, it failed to convey any sense of hope that their circumstances would improve.
We thought there was something wrong with that picture. So, under the title "Struggling to Make Ends Meet," we commissioned a series of national telephone surveys in 2006, 2007, and 2008 and asked four thousand adults for their observations and opinions about poverty within their communities. The findings were strikingly consistent.
Findings from the 2008 survey, for example, reveal that respondents are realistic about their personal and local economic situation:
- Nearly seven out of ten said they were very or somewhat worried that their local economies might get worse this year;
- More than half said their local economies are "only fair" at best;
- More than half said they personally know of someone who is working two or more jobs and still struggling to make ends meet;
- More than a third said they worry most of the time that their income won't pay the bills;
- Most believe their local elected officials should take very specific action to address poverty in the community;
- Seventy percent said it takes at least $40,000 a year to support a family of four nearly twice the federal poverty threshold.
Yet, these same respondents remain hopeful things will change for the better:
- Eighty percent said they are almost certain to vote this November, and when they do most will think about what the candidates have said they will do to help those who struggle to make ends meet;
- Nine in ten personally want to do more to help people who are struggling to make ends meet;
- More than eight in ten said they consider helping others who are struggling to be a top or middle concern in their lives;
- Eighty-five percent agree or somewhat agree that there are people in their communities who are willing to help those who are struggling;
- Sixty percent believe it would be a "very good idea" for people to get together to discuss was to help those who are struggling; another 30 percent said it would be a "somewhat good idea";
- When it comes to identifying what the respondents might do, 30 percent indicated they were very likely to attend a community discussion, and 49 percent would take part in a church project;
- Eighty-five percent think the number of people struggling to make ends meet can be reduced in their communities.
Given the scale and gravity of the deteriorating economic situation across the country, this optimism is good news. In our work, we have learned that hope is a critical ingredient in community efforts to reduce poverty and build long-term prosperity. Indeed, in many of the small rural communities where we've worked, survey participants have said that daring to hope in a better future was crucial to their ability to get by.
Hope provides the heart we all need to develop a shared vision and common goals in the struggle against persistent poverty. It helps fuel our anti-poverty strategies, enables us to implement action, and weather adversity. Hopefulness is a quality that both the public and private sector need to engage more proactively if all of us are to move forward and upward as a nation.
Gary Cunningham is vice president of programs and chief program officer at the Northwest Area Foundation.