By The Gazette Editorial Board
Last week, the United Way of East Central Iowa did something it’s never done before. The United Way board approved an emergency allocation for five of the 37 agencies it helps fund in our seven-county area.
Up to $335,000 will go to non-profit agencies that provide mental health care, senior programs and transportation services to residents with major needs. The biggest amount, up to $150,000, will go to Meals on Wheels, the program operated by the Horizons family service agency that provides 800 meals a day to older adults and persons with disabilities who have difficulty getting their daily nutritional needs.
The emergency funding was declared in the face of reduced government funding that assists these as well as many others agencies’ programs.
The United Way’s action was appropriate. It will help agencies maintain important services they provide to many of the most vulnerable of our fellow Eastern Iowans. And, thanks to some prudent fiscal practice, the emergency money won’t rob from other areas of assistance.
Each year, United Way leaders told us, they plan for a certain amount of uncollectable pledges to their campaign. During the last two years, more pledge money than expected came in, and that is what’s paying for the emergency allocation.
OK. Good for now.
But what does the future hold?
Lois Buntz, United Way CEO and president, acknolwedged that they’re “at a crossroads. It’s safe to say there are more vulnerable families here than a decade ago.”
She’s right. The number of Iowans in poverty, mirroring a national trend, has risen sharply in recent years. In Johnson and Linn counties, the 2010 census showed more than 40,000 were below the government poverty level, compared to 27,000 in 2000. The poverty rates are 9.6 percent of the Linn population and 18.2 percent in Johnson (where many are college students at the university).
Iowa, at 11.6 percent, remains better off than the nation as a whole, which is at nearly 14 percent.
However, if support from federal, state and local governments continues to decline or the recent cuts aren’t restored, the United Way “can’t fill the gap” on its own with ongoing emergency funding, Buntz said. “As a community, we need to work together and find new ways, new solutions.”
Easier said than done.
But again, we agree with Buntz.
Given the federal government’s immense debt problems, it’s not likely we will see much loosening of purse strings for many human services programs. The state of Iowa is much better fiscal shape and may be able to fill some of the gap in critical areas. Already, mental health reform is under way and it’s hoped the new system eventually will provide adequate funding statewide.
Even with more generous state support in mental health or other human services, more pressure is bearing down on local nonprofit organizations. In one way, that’s good. Local providers understand the local need better than a state or federal bureaucrat, and should be able to better monitor the use of charitable funds.
Still, until our economy is producing more well-paying jobs, more Iowans get the skills required for those jobs, and the poverty trend is reversed, the best way forward must involve collaboration among United Way and other private funding organizations that have overarching missions to assist our community and neighbors in need.
Such as the Hall-Perrine Foundation, who mission is “dedicated to improving the quality of life for people of Linn County, Iowa, by responding to changing social, economic and cultural needs.”
Or the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, which aims to be “… responsive to the ever-changing needs of Linn County’s charitable sector and will continue to be a catalyst for solutions that have lasting impact
Or the Linn County Nonprofit Resource Center, whose primary task is to connect nonprofits to resources.
These organizations and others already do much good work to help ensure a decent quality of life for all who live here.
Their collective challenge, however, is growing, apparently with no foreseeable letup in the near future. They must educate the public on what’s at stake: the well-being of fellow citizens. And their ability to work together at the highest level will be key to finding the most effective approaches toward meeting this challenge.
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