United Way

Building a Better Reality: United Way’s Collaborative Impact in Jackson

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Ken Toll speaks at the State of the City presentation on Feb. 26.

Ken Toll, President & CEO of United Way of Jackson County, was a speaker at the Jackson “State of the City” presentation on Feb. 26. Below are his remarks about the financial struggles of families in poverty and how United Way is bringing together partners and resources to help those in need.

I’m especially excited to be here at the Michigan Theater. I grew up just a few blocks from here, and many times I hiked over for a Disney double-feature matinee. After college, I returned to Jackson and bought a home on Burr Street, where I still live with my amazing wife, Betty, and where we raised our three kids.

In short, Jackson is my home. I’m proud to live here and proud to be part of tonight’s event.

Mayor Dobies will be speaking to you about the State of the City. I’m here to talk about the state of 63 percent of the city. That’s the number of households right here in Jackson that are either in poverty or struggling to make ends meet.

Now, I could describe their state in my words. But I think it’s better to speak in their words.

Here’s what one resident said: “Living in poverty is like being punched in the face over and over on a daily basis. It’s pulling yourself out of a hole, only to fall over a cliff.”

Another said, “We’re told if you work hard, you’ll get results. But for my family, there haven’t been any results. Only survival.”

Still another said, “I sit here now, writing this at my desk that is piled with overdue utility bills and a statement from my landlord telling us they are pursuing legal action against us because our rent is currently 17 days late. … The future is more uncertain than ever.”

These are real statements from Jackson residents. We gathered them from community conversations led by our friends at the Nonprofit Network.

It’s easy to get defensive when we hear those words. But let’s not do that tonight. We’re not here to criticize Jackson. We’re here to acknowledge a tough reality. We’re also here to acknowledge Jackson’s long and proud history of taking tough realities and turning them into better, brighter realities.

There’s a reason why our solutions are homegrown. There is no cavalry coming to change our current reality. No state or federal magic is going to transform Jackson.

It’s up to us.

Over the next few minutes, I’ll talk about United Way’s focus on fighting poverty and how we’re working alongside our many partners – including the City of Jackson – to help people achieve financial self-sufficiency. I’ll also talk about some of the new work we’re embarking on. And I’ll finish with some thoughts on how each of you can help make a difference.

Four years ago, United Way took a hard look at our community impact. At the time, we were – as the old saying goes – “a mile wide and an inch deep.” We were doing a lot of good things, but we weren’t deep enough in any one area to drive meaningful, lasting change.

We also recognized the common thread running through every major social issue in Jackson County. That thread is financial instability. It includes people in poverty. It also includes what we call ALICE, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. ALICE encompasses hard-working people who are barely getting by. All it takes is one unexpected event – a sick child, a broken fan belt, a busted furnace – and an ALICE family can slide into poverty. It’s so simple to slide into poverty – but it’s extremely difficult to climb back out once you’re there.

In Jackson County, more than 4 in every 10 households are either in poverty or ALICE. Our United Way serves the entire county, but we also know the city of Jackson is its heartbeat. That’s why we’re so proud to work alongside the Mayor, the Council and staff to tackle financial instability here in Jackson.

In 2016, United Way decided to channel its energies to fighting poverty and helping ALICE. We set a bold goal: Help 5,000 Jackson County residents develop a pathway to financial stability by 2025.

Here are some examples of what we’ve done since then.

We’ve shifted our partnerships and investments to emphasize impact on poverty and ALICE. In some cases, long-time partners simply changed the way they assess their programs to show how their work is helping people become financially stable. In others, we were able to create new partnerships, fund new programs, and take part in new ideas that made a big difference.

For example, we look at Energizing Education, our early grade reading initiative, through the lens of how reading skills equip a student to succeed all the way through graduation and beyond, including a good-paying career. The school-to-prison pipeline is a very real thing, and we know that literacy is the best way to interrupt that pipeline. That’s something my good friend Thomas Burke taught me long ago. What’s more, we’re building on our EE experience to launch a new effort, which we call Staying In Closer Touch, that records incarcerated parents reading children’s books. That recording and book are then given to that inmate’s children. This promotes reading, strengthens the parent-child connection, and reduces trauma that can have lifelong effects.

We’ve structured our utility assistance program—made possible through support of the Michigan Energy Assistance Program and Consumers Energy—so that, when people call for help to keep the lights on, we work with them to assess their other life needs—and then we connect them to the programs that can help them.

Another solid accomplishment is our business resource network called JobSTAR. We launched this effort two years ago. JobSTAR embeds a Success Coach at participating businesses, connecting employees to services and support programs so they can get beyond barriers to work. Today, JobSTAR employs two Success Coaches: Scott Walker and Kristen Pryor. In 2019 alone, Scott and Kristen responded to 551 local employee requests, connecting workers to 943 services—from fixing broken cars to finding emergency child care to keeping workers and their families from homelessness. We’re grateful for our 13 local JobSTAR companies as well as our founding partners—Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, Michigan Works! Southeast, Jackson County Department of Health and Human Services, and Family Service & Children’s Aid.

So let’s think about that last example. 551 local working people helped by JobSTAR already – that’s 551 working households who needed help with basic needs – food, housing, medical care, transportation. When I was growing up a couple blocks away from here, my father was just starting out as a public school teacher and mom stayed at home to raise my sister and me. We didn’t drive new cars or take fancy vacations, but thanks to my Dad’s small salary, we always had enough. We had a home, we had plenty to eat, we had hope that things were getting better, and we had some fun along the way. Today, we have parents working two and sometimes three jobs, working long hours day in and day out, and they still cannot afford a home, or enough to eat.

The world is changing fast, and so too are we. But beyond new initiatives like these, United Way is still in the business of investing dollars where they can have the most impact. Since our shift to focusing on poverty and ALICE, we’ve invested $25,050,991 in programs here in the city, across Jackson County, and via utility assistance to households all across the state.

Those are a few examples of where United Way is working hard for a better, brighter reality for Jackson. The next logical question is, “How are we doing?”

The answer is mixed.

United Way has issued three statewide ALICE reports since 2014, thanks to funding by Consumers Energy Foundation. In that timeframe, poverty in Jackson County has dropped from 18 percent to 13 percent. That’s the good news!

The not-so-good news is, the ALICE population grew from 23 percent to 29 percent. Not all of that growth is due to people in poverty moving “up the scale.” Some folks have fallen from financial stability into ALICE. It means more people in Jackson County are living paycheck-to-paycheck, just one crisis away from poverty. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, black or white – ALICE is growing across all groups.

Clearly, we still have a lot of work to do.

And that’s where we get to the “secret sauce” that makes Jackson such a great community.

Earlier, I talked about Jackson’s legacy of making tough realities better. We do that when we collaborate.

Jackson needs new economic systems … new relationships and partnerships … new ways of thinking and doing.

Solving poverty … lifting ALICE up … that’s not United Way’s job alone. We all must own it. And so I’d like to give a big thanks to Mayor Dobies, who is doing exactly that through his formation of a Poverty Council. He has assembled a group of leaders from the Financial Stability Network to advise the City and represent the interests of those struggling households whenever the City is considering new policies or projects. The City of Jackson is listening, and that’s how all great collaborations begin.

Collaborations like JobSTAR, and the Financial Stability Network and the Poverty Council are examples of Jackson owning the tough reality.

So is our work with organized labor—one of the key historic drivers of Jackson’s economic success. United Way’s Labor Liaison, Colleen Sullivan, is helping us identify more needs and opportunities for Jackson County workers.

We’re seeing progress there too. Last fall, when the GM strike threatened to tear through Jackson’s economy, we established a rapid response fund to assist displaced workers. And the new UNITY mentorship effort, which Colleen is leading, is introducing young people to career opportunities in the skilled trades—a tremendous need in Jackson County and beyond, because those jobs pay enough so that those families can fully support themselves by working 40 hour weeks. But there is much more we can do – I’d like to call on the Mayor to establish a responsible contractor policy and to enact a community benefits agreement. These two actions will help ensure that workers who are being paid with our public dollars are earning above ALICE wages, and that the businesses earning profits from our public dollars will contribute some back to benefit this community. Like most of our local businesses do.

Likewise, collaboration is key in the Community Action Agency’s efforts to create stable housing by holding landlords accountable for quality housing while aiding renters so they avoid eviction. We’re proud to be part of that engagement, and we know there is a lot more work to be done to ensure Jackson has enough safe and affordable housing for all.

Another, very recent example of collaboration is our announcement last week with CP Federal Credit Union that brings a full suite of online financial education and planning tools to Jackson County residents—for free! Powered by Banzai, this resource does everything from helping families build a spending plan to getting financial coaching. If you didn’t catch the media coverage of this great tool, I encourage you to visit our website, uwjackson.org, and check it out!

As we continue to build momentum, one area we know we need to focus more than ever is equity. Financial instability affects every demographic … but communities of color face this challenge far more. Knowing this, our new programs and initiatives are bringing real measures to make sure we’re addressing disparities.

In fact, we’re driving this to the neighborhood level. We’re now looking at doing targeted microgrants that address hyperlocal needs as defined by the people in those neighborhoods themselves. We know there are a lot of people out there who have been supporting their neighbors and improving their neighborhoods – and United Way is ready to start pitching in.

Equity also applies to people with criminal records. Nation Outside, which is led by formerly incarcerated people who are now building new systems to help former convicts re-engage in society, is something we’re involved in and very excited about. I am humbled every time I meet with Nation Outside’s leaders, and I continue to learn from their perspectives, patience and grace. United Way is also a partner in the Decriminalizing Poverty Action Team to promote expungement, which removes certain non-violent offenses from people’s records so they can get jobs, support their families and make a meaningful contribution to society. Because without expungement, a minor criminal offense becomes a lifetime sentence of unemployment –and that’s not good for any of us. Thanks to our friends at Michigan Works! and the Jackson District Library, we have new solutions that are getting hundreds of people back into the workforce.

I could go on. There’s so much more United Way is doing! But my time is spent, and I want to leave you with a couple of thoughts.

Novelist James Baldwin once wrote, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” Baldwin is right. The material, emotional and physical toll of poverty is huge, and many of our state and national policies are engineered to make it even worse. That toll, that expense, goes beyond the individual … to the family … and ultimately to our entire community.

We need to change that tough reality. And we’ll only do it when we work together.

At United Way, “United” is in our name for a reason. We’re not about politics. We’re not about slick ads or social media grandstanding. We’re about “connecting our community for the common good.” We’re about making sure every person in Jackson County can succeed.

That’s our passion. We’re all about building a better and brighter reality. Tonight, right here and right now, is your invitation. I need you to be part of that work. We need you! Jackson needs you! Speak up, sign up, pony up some resources.

And let’s start building that new reality together.