By Steve Payne
The White House recently released Creating Pathways to Opportunity, a report that outlines what “Pathways Back to Work” (job creation and training in new industries) the Administration has done to help create opportunity for all Americans. It highlights the impact of Recovery Act funding in preventing further economic turmoil by keeping more than six million Americans out of poverty and 45 million people from going hungry. It also touts the President’s success in keeping college affordable and extending unemployment benefits. Although this sounds more like campaign rhetoric than a legislative update, it’s a worthwhile read nonetheless because it provides a handy summary of the Administration’s priorities and points to where the opportunities for the WAP and CSBG network lie. Here are the report’s four major focus areas:
- “Rebuild” and modernize infrastructure (school construction and job creation in infrastructure rehab)
- Tax cuts and credits
- Unemployment Insurance (extension)
I don’t need to tell you we’re at a crossroads in our history as a poverty-fighting network. Never before have we faced such a confluence of dire economic conditions, a polarized political environment, and general misunderstanding in our society about the issue of poverty. Fourteen million people are out of work. Partisan politics in Congress made passing even the publicly popular Jobs Bill, let alone the impending budget bill, highly unlikely. A new survey by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government found that only about one in 10 Americans sees poverty as one of the two top issues government should address.
So what do we do? We usually talk about toolkits in this network. How about switching it up a bit and grabbing a paintbox? Huh? What we need, according to creative, energetic thinkers like Milenko Matanovic, who addressed us last month at the NASCSP conference, is creative, outside the box thinking so we can take advantage of any opportunities that are out there. Matanovic, a self-described “recovering artist” and Executive Director of The Pomegranate Center, trains community members and civic leaders to inspire and engage people to build stronger, healthier, more connected communities through the creation of shared public places. His core values of multiple victories, strong communities, and collective creativity should inspire us to embrace challenges and capitalize on the opportunities we see in the White House’s priorities. Matanovic’s formula is easy – create social interaction and build a sense of local identity through creativity and collaborative efforts.
We should hear from enigmatic artists more often. Changing the seemingly intractable problems we face today takes some artistic creativity. And with over half a century of experience in alleviating the causes of energy and economic poverty, we have the right colors in our paint box. Notice how Matanovic’s values line up with the Administration’s priorities and with our network’s skills and resources:
THE CRITICAL NEED FOR MULTIPLE VICTORIES, WHERE THE BEST IDEAS SOLVE MORE THAN ONE PROBLEM AT THE SAME TIME
1. JOB CREATION
We have a workforce trained through WAP Recovery Act funds who can be put to work immediately in the “new” industry of energy conservation through energy retrofits and home weatherization. This two-fold focus on energy sustainability and job creation offers a strong model for strengthening communities and the economy.
STRONG COMMUNITIES OF PLACE ARE BOTH THE STARTING POINT AND THE FOUNDATION OF HEALTHY SOCIETIES
2. MODERNIZE INFRASTRUCTURE
Again, we have trained WAP workers who have skills to rehabilitate old energy-wasting buildings through audits, retrofits, and upgrades. Using our Weatherization Assistance Program workforce to improve infrastructure will create jobs and make homes and communities healthier.
THE POWER OF COLLECTIVE CREATIVITY TO DEAL WITH COMPLEX ISSUES FACING MODERN COMMUNITIES
3. TAX CUTS, CREDITS, AND UNEMPLOYMENT SUPPORT
Community Action Agencies have always lead the way in coordinating benefits, enrolling eligible families, and spreading the word about income support opportunities that keep people from falling into poverty. Our network is equipped to help struggling Americans capitalize on these types of income support programs so that they can stay out of poverty and contribute to the health of the nation’s economy. Beyond just coordinating existing programs, by sharing best practices and ideas our network is a collective, creative organism.
When communities get healthier, economies improve, crime rates drop, people live longer, and they feel safer. The Administration’s priorities in are just that — opportunities. We need to get our network connected to these programs and let the administration know that our network can make their ideas work. Both CSBG and WAP are up for reauthorization next year and we have an opportunity to partner with the Administration on our common goals related to creating opportunity and moving people out of poverty. We just need to remember to think outside our toolkit and delve into our paint box a bit to get creative.