Raising Central Iowans Out of Poverty

December 2, 2015


For the past 16 months, a diverse group of central Iowans have rallied their support around the OpportUNITY initiative. Their audacious goal: to elevate 20,000 central Iowans out of poverty. Poverty is a niche game — for the hundreds of people struggling financially, there are hundreds of reasons why.

We know that central Iowans can work together to elevate our neighbors out of poverty. Poverty is more than a lack of money; it is a lack of hope.

Earlier this month, OpportUNITY reconvened with 125 business leaders, philanthropists, nonprofits, government, schools and 30 of our neighbors who are experiencing poverty first-hand to build our understanding of those hundreds of reasons, and what actions can be taken to address them.

First, we looked at the numbers. About 195,000 central Iowans — 35.3 percent of the total population of Polk, Dallas, and War­ren counties — do not earn enough to be self-sufficient. And 64,235 — 12 percent — live below the federal poverty level — that’s only $11,670 a year or $973 a month for an individual.

Those statistics are unacceptable in a community that has received so many top rankings, such as the No. 1 Best City for Young Professionals (Forbes), No. 3 Top City for New College Grads (SmartAsset), No. 1 Up & Coming City for Food (Women’s Health), No. 2 Best City to Find a Job (Wallethub) and the No. 1 Metro with the Most Community Pride (Gallup). Furthermore, our metro’s GDP growth outpaces our Midwestern peers. Our economy is strong, and it is time that everyone shares in the positive momentum.

Then, summit attendees reviewed the Central Iowa Community OpportUNITY Plan, a game plan for helping 20,000 of our neighbors rise out of poverty. The OpportUNITY Plan — created with community leaders, volunteers and those experiencing poverty themselves — recommends action with the best promise for success within four key areas:

Education and workforce readiness: Ensure all children and adults are prepared for central Iowa jobs.Affordable and available housing, transportation and food: Secure more affordable housing for low-income people, improve transportation to jobs, and improve accessibility to affordable, nutritious food.

System change: Advocate for public policy changes, such as the “cliff effect,” in which low-income workers suffer a catastrophic loss of public benefits when they reach a certain income.

Refugees: Ensure Iowa’s growing refugee population are welcomed and have adequate resources to succeed in their new home.

Our community is already making great strides through promising collaborations, and now is the time to capitalize on such great momentum!  A few examples that have had impact in our community include The Housing Tomorrow Plan and Viva East Bank, which are together improving access to affordable, safe homes, and a new Centralized Intake System used throughout our community to help connect homeless individuals and families with the most appropriate shelter as soon as possible. DART Forward 2035 is working to improve public transportation from where people live to where they work, and Hunger-Free Polk County will improve access to food to the more than 54,000 Polk County residents who are food insecure.

Central Iowa has the pieces in place to bring solutions to scale thanks to the collaborative spirit of our communities; United Way of Central Iowa has agreed to coordinate this community-wide action on behalf of countless partners.

Poverty should not be a permanent condition. At the OpportUNITY Summit, central Iowa’s leading nonprofits, companies, government entities and faith-based organizations signed a pledge and stated their commitment to the goal of helping 20,000 individuals escape poverty. Because if everyone does more together, it will be far more effective than any one group can do on its own. Collectively, we can reduce poverty in central Iowa — and we have a plan!

Central Iowa can be the first region in America to reduce poverty at this scale. We call on all central Iowans to read the OpportUNITY Plan at www.opportunityci.org and commit to creating change, large or small, to reduce poverty in our community. We can set an example for the world.

This guest view was signed by Mary Bontrager, executive vice president, Greater Des Moines Partnership; Robert Brownell, Polk County Board of Supervisors; Marvin DeJear, director, Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families; Angie Dethlefs-Trettin, vice president, Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines; and Mary Sellers, president, United Way of Central Iowa.