I am very excited about the $4 million set aside for low-wealth communities. This allocation aligns with the $40 million for affordable housing, the acquisition of Bethel Homes, the development of the East Athens Library and the SPLOST provisions for living wages at the Classic Center. I am happy the commission is putting the resources of the city to use in helping underserved communities. I hope these efforts will continue.
I am writing this to publicly make a few suggestions on how to use the prosperity fund. I was going to tell you how to spend the money in the best way I saw fit. This would not be a completely uninformed opinion. However, when I put the question to a friend with family roots in Athens about what to do about poverty, her answer was telling. She said, “I haven’t done enough research on this topic to have an informed answer.” Even though she lives in poverty in this community, as did her mother and grandmother, she still hesitated to provide an opinion. I was taken aback, but I agreed with this response for all involved. Like my friend, the people who are in poverty in this community have been dealing with this issue for generations. While we need to have a sense of urgency about solving the high poverty rate and providing much needed help and resources to underserved communities, we need to be strategic, and strategy takes time to develop.
As a scholar, I urge you to research the most effective and far reaching ways to allocate the remaining $3 million-plus. As we know, the poverty rate is unduly high in this community and the unemployment rate is low, which means we need higher wages to change the poverty rate. The city cannot directly control the local wages, so we have to be more creative in providing services that make people ready for better jobs, support unions/unionization and help people start businesses. I believe these strategies need to be a part of a worker center through the yearly budget as a long-term strategy to lower poverty while the prosperity fund serves as a much more targeted endeavor.
Again, I strongly urge you to consider hiring a paid community researcher dedicated to outlining the best practices for poverty reduction for the commission and the city that is funding these efforts. Quickly deciding how to spend $4 million in ways that are ineffective serves no one and will be a disservice to the communities that need this investment the most. Instead, I urge a slow and steady approach that pairs next year’s budget strategies for poverty reduction with the prosperity fund.
Additionally, I have six recommendations that should be a part of the process and implementation of the prosperity fund (I’m sure I’m not the first to make these):
1. Gaining wide community support from the communities you are seeking to affect
2. Weighing return on investment (ROI) with projected number affected
3. Providing services, resources and learning opportunities unavailable to low-wealth communities
4. Investing in wealth building assets
5. Building on already existing infrastructure
6. Modeling what we want to see
The first thing I want you to consider is speaking to the low-wealth communities themselves and asking them what they need. Their answers might surprise you. Continually relying on the same stakeholders, nonprofits and the unpaid, mostly white professional committees does not allow the lived experience of poverty in this community to be reflected in the solutions used to solve them. Instead of asking the same stakeholders to speak for the community, have them bring you in to hear the needs of the people these $4 million is for. And not one or two times—I’m talking about sustained and engaged investment. This community that has been surveyed to death deserves a real forum on poverty that is consistent and allows people on the frontlines of the issue to be at the frontline of creating the solution.
The second thing I want you to consider is that the time it takes to see the results will be important if the prosperity fund is to be seen as successful enough to do regularly. For example, a baby bonds program for a select group of children has a very long ROI, because they cannot spend the funds for the next 18 or 21 years, so at minimum, the ROI is 20 years. And depending on the number of lottery winners, it may not be all that wide reaching, either.
Thirdly, consider the higher-level needs of low-wealth communities. What do these communities lack because of low wages and negative wealth? The first things that come to my mind are investment capital, mental health services, lawyers, financial advisors, tax consultants and business consultants. Not having access to a lawyer for small claims court keeps low-wealth communities from being able to recoup losses. Also, having access to a business consultant might help a person create a business plan and start a successful business. Providing these services, resources, workshops and other learning opportunities can help people with the effects of poverty and to move people out of it.
The fourth recommendation you should consider is to provide opportunities to acquire and maintain wealth building assets. As I understand it, building wealth is about acquiring assets with relatively flat maintenance costs and rising value, i.e., homes. People who already have homes need the funds to be able to afford these relatively flat costs, which include upkeep and property taxes. When these are out of reach, low-wealth communities slide deeper into poverty because of homeownership.
The fifth consideration is who is already doing it. Nuçi’s Space is already providing mental health services at a sliding scale. Pairing with them in order to expand these resources will be much better than reinventing the wheel. Habitat for Humanity already helps people maintain and acquire homes; modeling their structures or expanding their services are also options. Building out the infrastructure that already supports impoverished communities will have less dramatic but long-lasting impacts.
And lastly, please model the practices that you want for this community. We should be producing high quality and well paid jobs, supporting and providing services the community actually needs, and being transparent with the process and outcome. If we do not do that with the prosperity fund, then how do we expect progressive candidates to get re-elected or to gain the support to continue these efforts from the whole community, but most notably, the low-wealth communities we need to better serve?