Getting creative to fight poverty

From Bangor to Peoria, in the Huffington Post and in Forbes Magazine, the press is focusing on the minimum wage. While we hear and read about it constantly these days, many of us never take the time to reflect on what it really means.

When seen up close, as I do every day here in Baltimore at the Center for Urban Families, the real meaning of "minimum" becomes painfully apparent. Minimum is just that. As Merriam Webster says: "the least quantity assignable, admissible, or possible." But is minimum enough to lift formerly unemployed people from lives of urban poverty?

Let's face it — the current minimum wage will never be enough to lift a family out of urban poverty. Families need a foundation: a home to come back to at the end of the day; often a car to get them to and from work increasingly not accessible by public transit; education to expand their employment opportunities; and a relatively stable family dynamic. The hard truth is that minimum wage isn't adequate in providing the means for the basic building blocks of that foundation.

The key to rising above the limitations of the minimum wage is collaboration and open communication among organizations in our respective communities. Networks, government agencies and nonprofits in Baltimore have unique but targeted services that could and should be working in tandem to provide viable paths to stability that low-income, urban families so desperately need.

The Center for Urban Families has begun what we call the "Partner eXchange" process by collaborating with key organizations in Baltimore that have the necessary tools to aid the struggling urban families we serve. A home is a logical starting point for a stable family life; however, we see many cases of families struggling for even that basic need. Our partnership with the Woda Group LLC. has given some of our clients their first opportunity to become homeowners or renters of quality, affordable homes.

In the Baltimore metro area, there are more than 80,000 low-income families without a car. Yet public transit allows them to reach only 54 percent of all jobs in the region within 90 minutes. And according to Vehicles for Change, more than half those are high-skill jobs for which our low-income residents don't qualify. Many feasible employment opportunities lie beyond the reach of public transportation. That's why we partner with Vehicles For Change, a Baltimore nonprofit that aids people in securing cars for reliable transportation. The result? We have seen a drastic expansion of employment opportunities and the opportunity to take on extra shifts.

The strains of an unstable or disintegrated family life become even stronger under the limitations of a minimum wage salary. There are times when fathers are faced with the decision of paying child support or buying their monthly bus passes to get to work, the uniforms they need to get a job or even groceries. The added pressures — both legal and personal — from an inability to pay child support often damage a family's entire web of relationships, particularly that between the father and child.

Our collaboration with the Child Support Administration of the Maryland Department of Human Resources allows more affordable payment schedules, while the Center for Urban Families works with fathers to aid with employment and planning to be in a stable position to sustain themselves and, ultimately, their families.

Giving the father more reasons to get involved in the lives of his children through this partnership is only a start, however. Our partners at Art with a Heart do more to rebuild fathers' relationships with their children and extended families by providing recreational activity to encourage a greater connectedness between child and parent. A father engaged with his child in a collaborative art project is demonstrating that there is a key place for him in his child's life.

Modern urban families often live with daily and ongoing disconnection, abandonment and inadequacy. Of course, this creates a family environment that can negatively affect the next generation. The parents we help need more than a shot at a minimum wage job. And their children need strong family support in order to grow up with the hopes and expectations of opportunity that their parents until now have missed.

These are but a few of the examples of how agencies like ours can do a better job of breaking the cycle of poverty in Baltimore. And we are doing it without tapping into additional resources in a tight economic climate.

The sooner we realize that the tools we need are right here — in our communities and within our reach — the sooner we can refocus our attentions on the collaborations and partnerships needed to break the cycle of urban poverty.

Joe Jones is founder and CEO of the Baltimore-based Center for Urban Families.

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