By The Gazette Editorial Board
Nearly 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, the battle is as difficult as ever.
Sometimes, it can seem that it’s all our communities can do to keep up with the demand for basic and critical needs, let alone attack the root causes of poverty and its complex, interrelated effects.
Structural economic and social changes have made moving targets of poverty-related issues. Improvements in one area too often are offset by backsliding in another. It’s tough to get a handle on the problem of poverty, let alone eradicate it.
But in recent years, the United Way of East Central Iowa has been using an outcomes-based approach that seems to be making a positive impact on our community.
As a way of maximizing resources, the organization began to focus resources on addressing root causes of our community’s most critical needs in the areas of education, financial stability and health — the three issues identified as the most critical challenges in our community through a comprehensive review.
They collect annual data from partner programs in order to measure the outcomes from funded programs — to make sure that donated dollars are resulting in tangible improvements.
The focus on these three, frequently interconnected, issues and long-term solutions has resulted in some resource shifts and presented occasional challenges for some United Way partners.
Still, the overall picture of results is a positive one.
How it’s working
Highlights of progress in their service area during fiscal year 2013, according to data shared with The Gazette by United Way of East Central Iowa staff, include:
l A 64 percent increase in the number of parents receiving support to help themselves and their family better function and recover from setbacks.
l A 22 percent increase in the number of children from birth to age 5 demonstrating developmentally appropriate language skills.
l A 12 percent increase in the number of school-aged children receiving help improving social-emotional skills.
l A 170 percent increase in the number of households kept from homelessness.
l A 56 percent increase in the number of uninsured women receiving health services.
l A 27 percent increase in the number of older adults receiving a nutritious meal.
By focusing resources on programs that work, agencies supported by The United Way of East Cental Iowa are leveraging significant results from relatively modest investments, according to United Way data.
In Linn County, for example, where only 58 percent of low-income children are reading at grade level, RED Ahead, a language development program of the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, has yielded some promising results.
The RED Ahead program, offered at the Urban and North Towne WIC clinics, teaches parents about the importance of early literacy, helps them access books for their children and rewards parents for helping them develop Kindergarten-readiness language skills.
More than 600 families were enrolled in the program between its launch in September 2011 and Oct. 1, 2012. A survey of their experiences revealed that 93 percent of respondents felt more prepared to support their children’s language development and pre-reading skills.
Ninety-eight percent said they practiced skills learned at RED Ahead at home. Their children were screened for developmental progress, and 93 percent showed improved or maintained skills in relevant categories.
Those children who still screened lower than the target proficiencies were offered extra help. Every one of those families offered supplemental activities accepted, according to United Way data.
Other programs receiving funding from The United Way reported encouraging results.
Ninety-seven percent of students who received consistent tutoring at Grant Wood Elementary improved their reading and math scores over the year. Nearly half of those who in the fall had been performing below their grade level improved to meet or exceed their grade level standards by spring.
A cooperative effort among partners offering shelter to the homeless to prevent housing-insecure families from becoming homeless helped providers keep 958 households from becoming homeless, compared to 562 households helped the year before.
A partnership between Kirkwood Community College, local employers, other community-based organizations and the United Way has helped low-skilled, low-income adults pursue training in high-demand sectors through a six-week certificate program that resulted in an average $2 per-hour increase in their wages. That translates into a more than $6,000 increase in annual income per family.
Partners in that project hope eventually to help an additional 1,400 families increase their income — a net increase of more than $8 million in earnings in our local economy.
The way forward
United Way of East Central Iowa is accepting proposals for the next three-year funding cycle. Agencies have until Oct. 18 to submit their letters of intent.
At the same time, fundraising efforts are underway at the more than 500 Eastern Iowa companies — employers big and small — to help the United Way reach this year’s $9.9 million goal.
The United Way always has presented itself as a clearinghouse to help maximize local resources, bringing together businesses, partner agencies, schools, government, unions, neighborhood associations, the faith community and others in the belief that small changes can make a big difference. Last year’s funds helped support more than 40 community partners serving more than 124,000 people — many for multiple services.
By zeroing in on a few, critical issues and tracking what’s working, the United Way of East Central Iowa promises to make scarce resources work even harder in our long, difficult struggle against poverty.
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