Jun 21

Addressing Poverty through Opportunity--Community Action Agencies

by Jill C. Dagilis | 06/21/2017 7:21AM | War on Poverty

What is your understanding of poverty? By definition it is the state of not having enough money to take care of basic needs such as food, clothing, and housing; I would add heat, medicine, childcare and healthcare to the list. It is a deficiency or lack of something. This lack is compounded by the limited access to opportunities for education, employment, and economic equality. These limitations often extinguish the hope for many people living in or at the edges of poverty.

Because the challenges posed by poverty are multifaceted, they must be addressed with multifaceted solutions. Sargent Shriver knew this when he designed the programs of the War on Poverty, including the extensive and responsive programs provided by Community Action Agencies (CAAs)

In this post, I’d like to focus on the efforts of a particular agency. For 52 years, Worcester Community Action Council, Inc. (WCAC) has been dedicated to helping thousands of people annually move to economic self-sufficiency in Worcester and 45 neighboring communities. It is part of MASSCAP, the group of 23 Community Action Agencies that work to address inequality, create opportunity, and end poverty in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In light of the current uncertainty with the federal budget and in the context of continuing and troubling levels of income inequality, WCAC’s efforts, along with our 1,000 peer agencies nationally, are particularly relevant. In Massachusetts we:

  • Help people stay safe, warm, and in their homes with affordable housing, fuel assistance, and energy efficiency programs;
  • Support families and prepare young children for success in school through Head Start and early education and care programs;
  • Prepare people for employment and advancement through a combination of youth and adult education and workforce training;
  • Strengthen household assets by providing financial literacy programs and free access to resources such as the Earned Income Tax Credit at Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites;
  • And, teach, encourage, and empower the people we serve to raise their voices and advocate for their needs.

CAAs, with over a half-century of experience, are trusted and responsive non-profit organizations who partner with municipalities and other agencies to address the needs of low-income people at the ground level. Each CAA is governed by a tripartite board of directors comprised of legislative, business, and low-income representatives. Together, built on a foundation of respect, we provide services with significant federal support, including Community Service Block Grant (CSBG), Head Start, and Low Income Heating Emergency Assistance (LIHEAP) grants. Regrettably, most of these programs are among President Trump’s proposed cuts. Without them, CAAs, and communities across the country, will be severely limited in our ability to continue serving. The federal funding must be sustained. 

MASSCAP recommends four priorities to address poverty in our state:

  • Raise the salaries of early education and care workers and increase the Massachusetts Head Start allocation to support low-income families with quality, affordable childcare;
  • Fund VITA sites, which provide no-cost tax return preparation to low-income workers and parents of young children;
  • Protect vulnerable households that are unable to keep their homes warm by dedicating state funding for heating assistance;
  • Strengthen the Commonwealth’s human services infrastructure by increasing investments in CAAs.

According to a Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center study for MASSCAP, CAAs help keep over 800,000 people out of poverty each year. If not for these services, the poverty rate in Massachusetts would be much higher than its current 11.5 percent. Even so, it must be lower-- much lower.

Community Action’s track record speaks for itself. We lift our vulnerable, low-income friends and neighbors out of emergency situations and into a more economically stable and upwardly-mobile status. These are individuals and families, many with young children, who are employed or underemployed and simply cannot meet their basic needs. They are also people with disabilities or seniors on fixed incomes, who without support cannot afford to remain in their homes. We follow Sargent Shriver’s model of providing opportunity, of giving “a hand up, not a handout.” CAAs provide a safety net that benefits not only the individual or household served, but also the entire community.

I’m hopeful that the generosity and compassion of this community, and our willingness to take action together, will allow WCAC to continue providing hope and opportunity to our neighbors most in need. 

Jill C. Dagilis, a Worcester resident, has dedicated her career to community development in the Heart of the Commonwealth for 37 years. She is the Executive Director of the Worcester Community Action Council, the federally designated anti-poverty agency for Central Massachusetts.

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