Op-Ed by Suzanne Donovan in Savannah Morning News on June 20
How refreshing – and valuable – to see a lively dialogue in the editorial pages about poverty, our city’s defining issue.
That we tolerate a 26 percent poverty rate in Savannah – and impossibly higher in several census tracts, up to 60 percent – is not just unconscionable but counter to our own economic and social interests.
Where I take some exception to the smart ideas that have been published recently is the “either/or” positions. Truth is, neither the lack of education nor our low wages – both issues that plague the Southeast – by themselves cause poverty.
We still struggle with racial and income segregation in housing, for instance, which may be the single greatest contributor to specific neighborhoods having higher concentrations of poverty. And unbelievable as it sounds, there are still people who won’t support public transit – a proven game-changer in terms of access to higher-paying work as well as other kinds of economic opportunity – because they believe buses transport “criminals” (code for people who don’t look like me).
Make no mistake, an under educated and uncompensated population are core issues. But they are not unique to Savannah.
Political and business leaders throughout the U.S. are having the same conversation about skilled workforce and wages. But even if we were able to somehow immediately alter the uneven and inequitable distribution of resources among our public schools today and ensure that every child was able to get a high-quality pre-K start, we still wouldn’t see a radical decrease in our poverty rate.
In the same way, even if a majority of new jobs created paid a family-sustaining wage, that step alone wouldn’t change the high concentration of families living in poverty in too many of our neighborhoods.
As painful as it is to hear, both issues and more have to be addressed. And they have to be dealt with at the same time. We can’t just select one piece of the problem to tackle. We can, and should, prioritize – and intelligently chose our target audiences who can affect change – but we can’t just act on one of these and hope to for real transformation.
We can demand more discriminating decisions about what industries to attract. We can seek out companies and encourage local startups that share a vision of community that promotes a strong local economy and that promise a living wage for families.
We can ask area businesses to take a stand and voluntarily pay family-sustaining wages and benefits, and as consumers we can support these businesses and services. (More employers could take a page from restaurants like Chipotles, now offering paid sick and vacation leave and tuition reimbursement for all their employees.)
We can demand that Chatham County’s schools that are serving children from high-poverty neighborhoods devote greater resources to these schools because we know these children, our children, need and deserve more. It’s not only the equitable thing to do, such investment would vastly improve our economy over the long haul.
Our only hope in cutting the high poverty rate is in a multi-pronged approach where every sector of our community commits to making a difference however they can, from individual choices to systemic changes.
I deeply appreciate the public debate about poverty. I agree, too, that while crime (particularly violent crime) is a legitimate public concern, poverty is at its core. Deep, generational poverty far overshadows crime as a relentless threat to individual potential.
We didn’t get here overnight. We built systems and made decisions over time that created and ultimately, albeit quietly, tolerated such high concentrations of poverty. Real change doesn’t happen based on either-or propositions.
We need to be all in.
Suzanne Donovan is executive director of Step Up Savannah. Contact her at email@example.com or 912-232-6747.