Poverty is caused by more than a lack of income or better managing personal resources; getting to the root causes means working to change systems that keep people drowning in debt or prevent them from accessing the tools they need to move themselves out of poverty and better position themselves to succeed.
Step Up identifies local policies and procedures that can be reformed based upon information and feedback from those directly receiving and providing services. Board members consider issues brought to it by action teams and committees after review and research. Through a process of education and debate, board members vote to address specific policy issues and, with technical support from staff, act as the primary advocates for reform.
Step Up’s policy platform focuses on local, regional and state issues in these areas: workforce development/adult education; wealth building; and work supports. Issues adopted by the board must be directly linked to reducing poverty.
More than 40 percent of Savannah’s households pay greater than 30 percent of their gross income on housing, and are considered “cost burdened.” In its original action plan, the city identified the lack of safe, affordable housing as a fundamental issue in perpetuating the conditions of poverty. Employers have also consistently noted the dearth of decent workforce housing. Capital for new construction and rehabilitation of substandard and inefficient housing have been cited as central issues in addressing this critical need.
In 2011 Step Up successfully advocated for the creation of the first municipal Affordable Housing Fund in the state of Georgia. City Council appointed an Advisory Committee to develop the policies and operating procedures, and has appropriated $150,000 a year for two years to seed the fund. The Savannah Affordable Housing Fund recently started operating a revolving loan fund, initially under contract with the Community Housing Services Agency, which is acting as interim administrator of the new fund.
Since 2009 Step Up has been examining the impacts of car title loans on the financial wellbeing of Savannah’s low-income residents. Car title loans offer the promise of immediate cash in exchange for clear title of a vehicle, regardless of an individual’s credit history. These loans come at a high cost, however, including interest rates (at 300% APR) and fees that mount significantly after an initial 30-day period.
National and local research has shown that these loans can actually generate more debt for consumers since most rollover the loan. Step Up’s board of directors is exploring regulatory recommendations, alternative products, and producing a public education campaign.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – formerly known as food stamps – authorized and funded by the USDA, provides assistance to eligible low- to moderate-income individuals and families to purchase food. Savannah employers whose lower-wage employees qualified for SNAP first identified issues affecting access to these benefits. Outdated phone and technology systems, indecipherable notices sent by the state to applicants, and a lifetime ban on SNAP benefits to those convicted of a drug felony prior to 1996 are some of the key concerns raised by Step Up and its partners.
Step Up and the Savannah office of the Georgia Legal Services Program are actively engaged in a Statewide Food Stamp Workgroup, and convened a local Food Stamp Workgroup with the Chatham County Department of Children and Family Services to address a range of issues that affect access to these critical public benefits.
Since the start of the Public Benefits program at Step Up Savannah, there has been a 487% increase in public benefits screenings, 415% increase in applications and renewals, 457% increase in outreach events, and 975% increase in outreach materials distributed.
Step Up Savannah started the Bridges Beyond Benefits (B3) Network in June 2022 to host an online community service board through a Facebook group to meet individuals experiencing the public benefits cliff where they are. The Public Benefits Cliff occurs when an individual is ineligible for Public Benefits but has insufficient income to cover their essential living expenses such as rent, healthcare, or groceries. Through surveys, listening sessions, and researching best practices around the country, Step Up Savannah has learned that if we can break silos and resource gaps, we can better assist people in our community. The B3 Network aims to bridge the public benefits’ cliff by encouraging community and peer engagement through information and resource sharing.
Step Up Savannah launched the Call to Action in April 2022 to make advocacy more accessible for service providers in our region. Early sessions worked to build up the knowledge and capacity of nonprofits, and now works on directly advocating for change. The group meets monthly to plan and coordinate activities and to learn what advocacy work other agencies and coalitions are doing. Through the Call to Action, service providers can put their experience and knowledge into the public sphere to shape positive outcomes for the broader community.
Step Up and NLA initiated our Online Voter Registration efforts with the Savannah Votes initiative in 2018 and partnered with ProGeorgia to facilitate voter registration and education in Savannah Chatham County. The goals of the program are to increase voting among our constituents and underrepresented communities, increase Step Up’s capacity for grassroots advocacy, encourage new leadership from within the community and build a lasting culture of voter engagement within our region. Utilizing volunteers and canvassers, Savannah Votes operates through outreach, phone banking, text banking, and door-to-door canvassing.
In May 2022, Step Up Savannah created the Savannah Advocacy Network. Like the Working Families Network, the group is designed to share resources that serve an advocacy purpose. If an agency is organizing an event or working on an op-ed, they can use the group to get feedback and to broaden its scope. The Savannah Advocacy Network (SAN) also meets monthly to learn how to boost advocacy impact and create positive change in the community. Currently, the group is comprised of members of local nonprofits along with NLA Alumni. In this way, the SAN is broader in scope than the WFN, as it reaches beyond the nonprofit community and directly to individuals working to have a positive impact on Savannah.
To be added to the Savannah Advocacy Network, contact Austin Rojas, Community Collaborative Coordinator at [email protected]