I recently sat in on the interviews of the four finalists vying for executive director of Heart of Missouri United Way. The 20-member panel included community leaders, HMUW board members and the organization’s full-time staff. Andrew Grabau eventually won the job, but all four finalists were exemplary, each possessing vital skill sets and a good understanding of issues affecting those who live in poverty in our community. After the four-hour marathon of presentations and questions, I walked away with a heightened understanding of the actual causes of poverty and how seemingly “normal’ conditions can contribute to pushing a community into the throes of civil unrest, such as we saw in Ferguson last summer.
The intense level of media coverage of Ferguson and Baltimore in recent months has reignited a decades-old conversation about race relations and the plight of impoverished people in our communities. For many, there is a false sense of security that the level of rioting, looting and violence in those two cities could never happen in a peaceful community like Columbia. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Whether we care to admit it or not, we have been tiptoeing around a virtual tinderbox of built-up tension, anxiety and frustration. Like most communities, Columbia has a tendency to side-step the uncomfortable societal ills of drug abuse, prostitution, human trafficking and desperate poverty. The familiar mantra is that these problems only exist in larger, metropolitan communities and these things can’t happen here, primarily because we are a caring, compassionate and progressive community. This myth is often perpetuated by a well-orchestrated public relations code of silence along with Columbia’s continual presence on the “Best Of…” lists in a variety of national magazines. It’s hard to condemn the narcissistic love affair we have with our city, but we might avoid the kind of civil unrest that would put us in the wrong kind of national spotlight if we would only stop and face reality.
The unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore was sparked by singular police actions that became tipping points, but both followed years of strained relationships and perceived, if not real, transgressions against the poor and underrepresented populations in those communities. Do those types of conditions exist in Columbia? Absolutely.
I learned a great deal about this issue from the United Way candidates. Each one has spent a significant portion of their professional careers studying the conditions that ultimately lead to civil unrest. Each offered pearls of wisdom and advice for avoiding the type of incident that might cast Columbia into the spotlight of shame.
The gist of my enlightenment boils down to this: Community leaders in Columbia must find a way to establish trust between themselves and those living in poverty. The old adage of pulling oneself up by his or her bootstraps is no longer a valid solution. Even my conservative ideals can’t cloud the reality that poverty in America is a brutal, centrifugal force that few can escape from on their own. Trust is lacking here because the community has made a lot of promises and simply not delivered on them. Actions have not matched words. We’ve heard promises of job creation, affordable housing, child care and reliable public transportation. Columbia has not delivered on those promises in any meaningful way. Despite the best intentions of welfare reform and job-training programs, Columbia has failed miserably because we did not put participants in sustainable job situations. Aid programs that originally were designed to be transitional have now become permanent because we, as a society, have failed to deliver viable alternatives. We can’t achieve trust in any relationship if we continue to break promises. Trust is the most important currency when dealing with those in poverty.
Here is the most troubling news: If we don’t make significant changes in the way we handle education, job creation and the delivery of social services, the future is bleak for Columbia and Boone County. A recent study called The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility shows that Boone County is one of the worst counties to live in for children in poverty. The study, published in early May, was a collaborative effort between Harvard researchers and The New York Times. Researchers report that Boone County is among the worst places in the United States for helping poor children up the income ladder; it ranks as the 426th worst out of 2,478 counties, in the bottom 17 percent of all counties in the United States. The study also shows that the sooner young children move away from Boone County, the more likely they are to avoid becoming single parents and to reap the benefits of going to college and earning more income as adults.
My hope is that we heed these early warning signs and take a proactive stance to confront poverty in our community. We are living in what truly is a tale of two cities. We like to focus our attention on the many quality-of-life amenities we publicly fund and our reputation as Missouri’s leading producer of Presidential Scholars. In truth, we’re still one of the state’s most racially segregated cities. We seem to be content in our ignorance about those living with mental illness, hunger and a variety of social ills we’d rather not discuss. These problems won’t get magically fixed because we have a new and enlightened United Way director. It’s going to take the entire community to reverse this tide.