The ‘Prosperity Package’ Is a Chance to Reduce Athens’ 38 Percent Poverty Rate

We have put forth a proposal that will allocate $4 million for the creation of a bold prosperity package, which will serve as a dedicated fund to begin allocating substantial resources towards reducing poverty in Athens. This fund will impact not only those facing the day-to-day challenges that poverty creates, but also those for whom our economy is strong, as we understand that poverty impacts every citizen in Athens-Clarke County. We are happy for the support of the mayor and commission and the positive comments we have received for the prosperity package.  

At our recent budget meetings, the commission was united in wanting to create a meaningful program to erode our current poverty level and expressed a strong desire to move forward in doing so at this time. Our property values have increased, and our sales tax dollars are strong—two major sources for financing our general fund and capital projects for our community.  While our budget indicates that our local economy is doing well, based on our 38 percent poverty rate, the unfortunate realization is that prosperity is not reaching many citizens in our community.

We’ve heard many concerns about all of the investment we have put into studies and research about the quality of living in Athens, but we have never made enough of a financial investment to make the sustainable changes recommended by these studies. This prosperity package is the direct result of the Athens Pathways to Prosperity by the Network for Southern Economic Mobility, which was presented in February 2019. We should also draw upon other past research recommendations to develop the prosperity package.

Photo Credit: Savannah Cole

Commissioner Ovita Thornton.

We are fortunate to have $4 million available for a prosperity package. While property values and sales tax revenues have increased, neither the millage rate nor any other tax increases will be needed to balance our county’s budget or for this prosperity package. We are grateful to those who pay property tax, operate a business in our community, shop and eat in Athens, and contribute towards making Athens a quality place to live. We are also appreciative of our county staff, who are good stewards in ensuring citizen revenues are well utilized and mindful of ways to save money. These actions have created conditions that enable us to take bold action today in addressing our poverty rate. If we aren’t going to be bold during favorable conditions, we certainly aren’t going to be bold during unfavorable ones—so let’s do something now.

We know that even $4 million will not solve our poverty problems, but we are hopeful that it can be a significant start in providing the dollar investment needed to help reduce the number of people struggling to improve their lives. Of particular note is that dollars invested in this poverty initiative can be leveraged to create additional funds for this program through successful grants.  Part of our suggested proposal includes funding to employ grants writers to seek the many public and private grant dollars available for efforts such as ours.

Any poverty-reducing initiative cannot have just a government solution. This prosperity package is strongly focused on developing partnerships with the Athens business community, existing nonprofits, places of worship and others who want to help with this community effort.  

Several of our suggestions include assistance with training opportunities and the creation of incentives for businesses which provide employment opportunities for those who have gone down a wrong path and are now seeking a better way to live their lives. People who have been formerly incarcerated oftentimes face difficulty in obtaining a job and, lacking any opportunity, may fall back on habits that have failed them in the past and keep them within our cycle of poverty. We believe everyone committed to seeking a second chance should have the opportunity to find one.  

A perfect example of a strong economic development initiative and partnership can be found at Green Opportunities, an organization in Asheville, NC. Green Opportunities has created UpStaff Personnel, a social enterprise that provides opportunities for motivated job seekers with a pathway to career-track employment opportunities, while offering a screened, dependable, and diverse workforce for Asheville-area employers.  Part of our prosperity package could be used to help get a program like UpStaff Personnel off the ground and, being a social enterprise, it can become self-sustaining.

We are also suggesting a focus of the prosperity package should be on finding ways to help our hospitals reduce their $77 million cost of indigent care, an expense that is paid for by all in our community. Creating health care navigators who can help determine health care needs and solutions for people in poverty would be a start.

An unfortunate reality about our poverty issue in Athens is that a greater percentage of people of color are most likely to be the ones facing hardships created by it. Therefore, part of a suggested prosperity package is developing partnerships to create a Small Minority Business Center that can offer training and assistance to those who are desirous of starting their own business. By helping to provide economic mobility and opportunities for those who are most impacted by poverty, we can build an economy that works for everyone.  

These are certainly just a few draft ideas on what a prosperity package could encompass, and we look forward to hearing other ideas as well. However, whatever makes up the final package will be determined with strong input from businesses, nonprofits and citizen participation.  Moreover, a final package should be impactful enough to make a positive difference and, of course, be one that can be evaluated and measured for its impact and success. Commissioners Melissa Link and Tim Denson are currently working on a draft vision statement that will be discussed at our next budget session and will highlight our expectations for this investment.

We strongly believe that a prosperity package can be a catalyst that will benefit everyone in our community.  We are thankful to the mayor and commission, ACC staff and residents of Athens-Clarke County for a shared desire to move forward with a bold initiative whose goal—reducing poverty—will enrich the lives of all of our citizens.