Credit Union Hero

May 28th, 2015 by

It’s not often that a financial institution is a protagonist. But in Savannah, Georgia Heritage Federal Credit Union came through like a hero this year, working with Step Up to create a new loan product aimed at low-wage employees.

More than 60 percent of Chatham County residents have sub-prime credit; thousands of residents remain stuck in a cash-based economy (albeit some by choice, others due to mistakes or, yes, bad choices) and at least 10 percent are completely unbanked. Many — truly untold numbers, since there is no straightforward way to count these individuals — are working full or part-time. For several years, Step Up staff and our partners have tried to identify ways to connect our working poor, some barely a paycheck away from poverty, to public benefits they’re eligible to receive that effectively boost their earnings. A significant opportunity has existed among thousands of wage-earners who find themselves in need of a small-dollar loan but who don’t have credit or whose bad credit translates into exorbitant interest rates.

When a life emergency or unanticipated need pops up, most employees ask for payroll advances, borrow from retirement plans, or turn to the unregulated car title loan industry.

Step Up has urged banks and credit unions to consider offering a safe loan product through area employers. Georgia Heritage recently stepped up. Employers can now offer through the credit union loans of $300-$1500 to those who have been employed in good standing at their companies for 6 months or more. No questions asked, no fees, and monthly payments are determined by the credit union and borrower, with amounts processed through payroll deduction. Credit scores are not part of the determination process and payments are recorded at credit bureaus so these employees can build a positive credit record. Further, once the loan is repaid, the auto deductions continue with payments going to the employee’s savings account. They can easily opt out of course but once individuals get accustomed to not having that $50 or $100 available, they typically keep it up, and in this case building savings.

Chatham Area Transit, Hospice Savannah, and Chatham County are employers who are on board, or just about, with the Life Line Loan. Step Up will be gathering data to document what works– or doesn’t– about this loan product. But we know that it won’t bury in more debt those who can least afford it, like the car title loan.

To learn more about our Life Line Loan, contact Robyn at rwainner@stepupsavannah.org

State of emergency for America’s young black males

April 29th, 2015 by

Ever since I read the news article, “Leaders seeking ways to save Savannah’s black young males” (12/27/14, Savannah Morning News, by Jan Skutch) I’ve been pondering some troubling questions about violence in our communities. What can I do to reduce the numbers of black male homicides, and the high rates of black male incarceration? And do these killings signal much deeper problems about a lack of empathy among the shooters and their victims; do they actually value life less?

As a Rochester native, I am all too familiar with homicide headlines and newscasts regularly featuring black men and boys killed on a daily basis. Rochester had 36 homicides in 2014 — that’s three per month on average. Nearly all of the homicides occurred in predominantly black neighborhoods. As a new resident of Savannah, I’m seeing the same stories–and media treatment– describing the violence and these are mirrored in numerous other cities throughout the country. Savannah is not alone in facing what feels like out-of-control violence among young black men.

Fortunately, Rochester and Savannah have some programs (preventive and rehabilitative) that seek to address some of the unique challenges faced by black boys and men. Here, we have the Chatham Apprentice Program, Young Men of Honor and Savannah Impact Program. Rochester has programs such as the Judicial Process Commission, the Safer Monroe Area Reentry Team and Vertus Charter School. These programs address post incarceration, limited and/or inadequate education, unemployment and behavioral change.

Clearly, our communities are trying but the crime numbers don’t seem to reflect our efforts. Unfortunately, there is a
disconnect between our efforts and effective solutions– or we’re not getting to enough young men in the most meaningful ways. Of course, we must remember statistics contain biases but still the numbers can be discouraging, to say the least. I am glad to know that communities are supporting programs and efforts to address the issue. I am anxious to help but still feel lost as to how I can be effective. In Rochester, I volunteered at a family shelter, helped host the Black History Month Celebration at the local museum, visited a youth shelter and cooked Christmas dinner at women’s shelter. I am always humbled to volunteer my time but I wonder if that really has an impact. I feel as if I am not doing enough. Perhaps it’s a question of quality vs. quantity. Is it more important to reach many or to have a deeper impact on fewer people? I am eager to find a niche to help address violent crime in the black community.

I repeatedly go back to the question, does violent crime reflect a lack of value for life? I cannot imagine killing someone other than as self-defense or in defense of loved one. However, my world view is vastly different than those of the young men who are perpetrators of violent crimes, particularly homicide. The ease with which it appears some are able to pull the trigger of a gun may speak to a lack of value placed on their own lives, or certainly on the lives of their victims. Is this a root cause of the gun violence we’re seeing of late? I don’t know but I believe violence is a learned behavior, and it can be reversed. The “live by the gun, die by the gun” mentality seems to have engulfed some youth in our cities. But still, as Mayor Pro-tem Van R. Johnson, said, “Black lives matter regardless of who takes their lives.”

Resources
http://rocdocs.democratandchronicle.com/map/rochester-homicides
http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/36/3663000.html

Challenges and Changes in Kids’ Health Insurance

February 10th, 2015 by

Since November, I have been working on Mayor Jackson’s Campaign for Healthy Kids & Families, a county-wide initiative to promote free and low-cost health insurance to children and teens.  Our goal is to cut in half the number of eligible but unenrolled kids in Savannah/Chatham County by December 2015.

I joined Step Up Savannah’s staff as an AmeriCorps VISTA in part because I was attracted to the campaign.  Giving disadvantaged kids an opportunity to have a better life is something that I feel strongly about.  (I am also involved with a small nonprofit group that sends poor kids to school in the Philippines.)  My initial thought was that getting families to sign up their kids for free healthcare would be a fairly straightforward task.  I have discovered that it is anything but that.

Connecting with parents to get their children enrolled in Right from the Start Medicaid or PeachCare is at the heart of this campaign.  We have asked hospitals, churches, schools, libraries, juvenile courts, private employers and the media to help us with this task.  At the same time, we have realized that parents face challenges signing up on their own.  There are parents who don’t understand or get frustrated by the insurance application process or who initially get denied.  They usually don’t try again.  There are parents who are lucky to get insurance through their jobs but struggle with paying the premiums (particularly to keep their families insured).  Depending on their family size and income, many don’t even realize they qualify for PeachCare (for instance, a family of four can have household income of $58,000).  And then there are single parents (mostly women) who already struggle with putting food on the table every day and just plainly could use the help.

We are here to convince these parents that times have changed.  Since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was implemented 14 months ago, more people are now qualified for public health insurance and many more have become aware of existing programs.  Over 10.1 million people have enrolled in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in the last 14 months.  Georgia alone had 197,000 enrollees even though Medicaid was not expanded in this state.  That number would be more if it was.

We know it’s not perfect.  As a matter of fact, the discussions on health insurance continue every day because it is a complex system.  However, I think it is encouraging to see that so many lives are being changed because we have made health care a priority in this country.  Let the rise in numbers speak for itself.

The ATM Revolution

January 5th, 2015 by

I recently came across an article in the Savannah Herald, The ATM Revolution by Alicia Scott, owner of Introspect Consulting Group, about the “ATM Revolution”. It was the first time I’d heard this term and found myself drawn to it.

The article provides a brief overview of what is considered the ATM revolution. This term refers to the emphasis and vast popularity of virtual spending and online banking. The Revolution includes the influx of Automated Teller Machines and the increase of credit cards and debit cards to make purchases. She offered cautionary advice about one aspect of the Revolution—spending your money through virtual channels—that resonated strongly with my own experience.

In particular, Scott discusses the dangers of the ATM revolution. The act of spending is virtual without money ever being exchanged physically. This phenomenon caters to convenience and fosters complacency. As a result, people are less likely to manually balance their checkbooks, therefore the skill is lost and forgotten. Online banking and check registers should co-exist and the best practice is to incorporate both tools.

Scott’s statement “The ATM revolution has erected a veil between our money and our eyes by enabling us to spend money without physically seeing it leave our hands” resonates with me because I am guilty of plastic spending. I rarely have cash on hand and I am familiar with and frightened by the veil Scott speaks of. I have long stopped manually balancing my checkbook and primarily track spending via online banking. I agree that manual check register balancing and online banking tracking should be combined for the most comprehensive financial outlook. I guess I should add manually balancing my checkbook to my New Year’s resolution list!

In the article Scott encourages parents, guardians, mentors and the like to teach and encourage tracking spending and creating a physical budget. In line with Scott’s message, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the FDIC promote financial literacy for children. The initiative consists of resources and tools for children Pre-K through college. Please visit http://www.consumerfinance.gov/parents/ for more information.

Shared Prosperity

December 9th, 2014 by

 

Step Up Savannah focuses on finding solutions and forging partnerships to reduce poverty in our community but the work is not without its challenges. For starters, the data paint a picture for us that can feel overwhelming.

Savannah has struggled for more than 30 years with deep pockets of poverty. The five-year census data shows our city with a poverty rate of 26.6%.  That’s about 31,118 people, more than live in many cities in Georgia.  We know too that there are neighborhoods in the county where 40 and 50 percent of families are living in poverty.

And then there are other data that tell a dramatically different story.  According to Conde Nast Traveler, Savannah has “got it all.” For the sixth straight year, it was named one of the top 10 U.S. cities and a “world class destination” for tourists with its history, shopping, nightlife and restaurants.

We read that the port of Savannah is the fastest growing in the country and some 30 Fortune-500 companies now have a presence in the area. Gulfstream, the area’s leading employer with more than 10,000 workers, is the midst of a $500 million expansion.

This is positive because, most people agree, a key ingredient to addressing poverty is a growing economy and Savannah seems to have that.  Yet all this fame and prosperity and growth doesn’t always trickle down to the everyday lives of the poor among us.  (OR:  doesn’t… translate??)

That one small city can contain such contradictions speaks volumes about the complexity of our work.

This is not an issue one organization can “solve.” Our organization takes a leadership role but even Step Up Savannah– which was well constructed to represent various segments of our community– cannot, on its own, reduce poverty.

This is our community’s issue to work on together, to find common goals and a way in for everyone to make a difference. But it starts with us asking ourselves some hard questions. What do we want to look like, Savannah?

Our median income is just $34,888 while the median income nationally is just over $53,000.  And remember those census tracts where 40 or more percent of residents are living below the poverty level?  That’s $23,850 a year for a family of four.

While we can claim some lower costs of living in the south, housing costs in Savannah remain high– so high, in fact, that more than 60 percent of our low-income renters are paying well over 30 percent of their incomes just on housing. We have 17,000 people on waiting lists for our public housing neighborhoods and Section 8 properties.

And while the local economy is apparently growing, unemployment and under-employment remain unacceptably high and we imagine what a culture of shared prosperity looks and acts like?

Healthcare matters

July 14th, 2014 by

More than 5,000 kids 18 and younger are uninsured in Chatham County, putting them at risk for preventable diseases, burdening families with financial distress resulting from medical bills and increasing costs to our hospitals (and taxpayers) for emergency room visits for routine care. A new initiative aims to change that.

A National League of Cities grant, just announced, will fund the Mayor’s Campaign for Healthy Children and Families to reduce by 50% the number of uninsured children in our county. Savannah is one of eight cities in the U.S. awarded these innovative grants that set 18-month goals to boost the numbers of eligible children and families enrolled in Medicaid and PeachCare.

Step Up, with its partner, Chatham County Safety Net Planning Council, the county’s healthcare collaborative, and City of Savannah staff produced the successful proposal. Key city departments such as the Public Information Office, the Citizen’s Office 311 service, plus enrollment and outreach partners will work hand-in-hand with community-based organizations, health clinics and hospitals to accomplish the ambitious enrollment gains.

Strategic points where kids and parents regularly intersect such as schools, health clinics, even public events will have information and direct families to trained enrollment assistance staff

Georgia lags behind other states in terms of health insurance coverage for children and families. Eleven percent of Georgia’s children are uninsured, representing 4.3% of the nation’s total population of uninsured children. Additionally, 23% of Georgia adults with dependent children are uninsured; 78% of Georgia’s uninsured children are eligible, but not enrolled in Medicaid or PeachCare.

Access to health insurance is a critical piece of the poverty puzzle–medical debt causes undue hardship, particularly on low-income families, and in most cases is avoidable by signing up for existing public health insurance programs. The National League of Cities grant funds raise the possibility of fostering real change and getting more eligible families signed up in our county.

Step Up Savannah seeks new executive director

March 3rd, 2014 by

Founded in 2005, we are an independent 501(c) 3 with a 39-member board of directors that counts more than 90 organizations among its partners. Our founding director has resigned to take a new job in Washington, D.C.   We are seeking an experienced director to lead the organization.

This network of business and government leaders, social service providers, neighborhood leaders and local volunteers form a nationally recognized partnership that seeks to engage the community in our mission: we work collaboratively to reduce poverty in Savannah and Chatham County.

Interested applicants should apply online through the City of Savannah’s website, where the full description is also posted.

Executive Director Step Up Savannah

Step Up’s director stepping down

February 7th, 2014 by

Daniel Dodd-Ramirez, executive director of Step Up Savannah, Inc., announced Wednesday that he’s resigning to accept a new position in Washington, D.C.  As a leader of the city’s poverty reduction initiative since it was launched in 2005, he has overseen the organization’s expansion into a nationally recognized partnership of government and business leaders, direct service providers, and neighborhood leaders.

“Daniel has provided steady leadership while directing the growth of this organization beyond the community’s original expectations,” said John Wills, Step Up board chairman. “There was no blueprint for this work, aside from an ‘Action Plan’ issued by the City in April of 2005. Step Up—and Savannah—are now recognized around the country for our poverty-reduction efforts.”

In his letter to Step Up’s board, Dodd-Ramirez wrote, “I have worked with Step Up Savannah for almost nine years now, and it is with much pride that I leave a strong organization with a truly excellent, dedicated and professional staff.

“I have learned much over the last nine years from so many people in this wonderful and generous community.  I am humbled and inspired by the low-income families that work so hard to improve their circumstances regardless of the obstacles that are stacked against them.”

Dodd-Ramirez’s last day will be Mar. 4.

Daniel Dodd-Ramirez

 

Hello Savannah: Welcome 3 new VISTA Associates

November 19th, 2013 by

Three AmeriCorps VISTA Associates have joined Step Up’s staff to assist in workforce development, wealth building, and policy research and communications initiatives. The VISTA associates will not only work alongside staff in these key areas over the next year but will work with partner organizations as well.

The associates hail most recently from Atlanta, Maryland, and Savannah. Diana Oladokun, workforce development associate, will help to build the capacity of the Centers for Working Families network as well as work to augment volunteer GED tutoring programs in the area. Erica Tremble will be conduting policy research on a range of issues affecting low-income families and assisting with Step Up’s Residents Team. Cierra Selby will build on the financial education network, assist in financial literacy classes, and in coordinating efforts for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance coalition.

“This is our second year as a VISTA site,” said Daniel Dodd-Ramirez, executive director. “Our organization and our partners gain valuable expertise with these three individuals. We welcome the passion and fresh ideas that these women bring to our work in Savannah.”

The AmeriCorps VISTA program falls under the federal Coporation for National and Community Service, which engages more than 1.5 million individuals annually to meet community needs in education, public safety, the environment, and increasing economic opportunity in low-income neighborhoods. According to its website, the Corporation commits more than $27,000,000 annually to support Georgia communities through service initiatives such as AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and Learn and Serve America.

Erica Tremble

Erica Tremble

Diana Oladokun

Diana Oladokun

Cierra Selby

Cierra Selby

“The Poor Pay More”

October 9th, 2013 by

Thank you, Savannah, for making Step Up’s annual meeting & breakfast a huge success. Ms. Zixta Martinez of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, our featured speaker, talked about the agency’s responsibilities for administering federal consumer protection laws and its newly issued mortgage rules intended to restructure the $10.4 trillion mortgage market. The bureau traveled around the U.S. to listen to thousands of consumers, business representatives and others, as well as conducted its own analysis before issuing the rules. Nearly one out of 10 mortgage borrowers is delinquent in Georgia, and almost one in three of our homeowners owes more in mortgage than their home is worth, Ms. Martinez reported. “Only Nevada, Florida, and Arizona were hit harder by the mortgage crisis,” she said.

She also stressed the important role municipalities can play in creating local responses that support healthy financial behaviors. Finally, Ms. Martinez urged consumers to use CFPB’s consumer complaint system, noting the agency has already handled more than 225,000 complaints about mortgages, credit cards, auto loans, debt collection and more. Its website is: consumerfinance.gov.

JCB Inc. won this year’s Workplace Innovator Award for its apprentice program, bringing young men and women into its workforce in positions that will lead to careers in that company. And finally, Daniel Dodd-Ramirez offered his assessment of Step Up’s accomplishments over the last year; you can read his remarks in full under the “research” section of this web site. View the full meeting, covered by SGTV, here:

Daniel Dodd-Ramirez talks about opportunity at Step Up Savannah's annual meeting

Daniel Dodd-Ramirez talks about opportunity at Step Up Savannah’s annual meeting

Zixta Martinez Bio 2013