In many ways, a healthier Buncombe County starts with a reduction in childhood poverty. Led by the local nonprofit Children First/Communities in Schools, community leaders are attacking the issue of poverty at both the individual level and the policy level. All of their work has been driven by having community members, facing the daily challenges of living in poverty, at the table to help identify and implement solutions to the most pressing issues facing their families.
Through their advocacy initiative called the Success Equation, community leaders have addressed the long-term issues that affect childhood poverty and measured their impact in moving families out of poverty. Advocacy efforts with state legislators spared $1 million in cuts to Buncombe County’s child care subsidy resources. They have studied potential negative impacts that may arise as families lose public assistance due to increasing incomes, and also, raise awareness among community members of resources—such as SNAP, affordable housing and Medicaid—that are available to families in need.
Another critical approach to preventing child poverty is ensuring parents can access the income they need to support their families. Asheville’s living wage ordinance, passed in May 2007, ensured that city employees were paid a living wage (currently $11.85). Though state law has stymied some expansion of the living wage law, a voluntary certification program identifies and promotes local employers that pay a living wage. So far, more than 300 local businesses have been certified through this program, which has extended beyond Buncombe to several other Western North Carolina counties.
While long-term advocacy efforts are important, community leaders and members also recognize that low-income children and families need support today. A key part of their strategy has been to establish Family Resource Centers, such as the one at Emma Elementary School, where folks are working together to improve the financial stability of families in poverty. This comprehensive program of Children First/Communities in Schools provides a myriad of direct resources to families, including a food pantry; parenting classes; emergency financial assistance for rent, utilities and medical expenses; and eyeglasses for children.
Harris explained, “The Family Resource Center has become a hub and safe place for families in need. The focus is not on just dealing with a crisis, but also helping families secure jobs and housing. Already, we’re seeing families become more stable, and as they do, many have come back to volunteer at the center and help other parents.”