The Charlottesville City Council held a work session on poverty to identify and discuss poverty related issues faced by the City.   The November 6, 2008 work session began with a presentation by Director of Social Services Buz Cox entitled, “What is poverty?”  One of Cox’s suggestions was for the City to provide or assist with low cost or free transportation to employment and education centers for those living in poverty.

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Charlottesville City Councilors

Poverty is defined as “the state of living in a family with income below the federally defined poverty level.” However, while the federal poverty level for a family of three is $17,600, the actual income needed for a family of three to be self-sufficient in Virginia is $35,797 according to a study done in 2002.  Furthermore, the high cost of housing in Charlottesville relative to other Virginia cities may mean the self-sufficiency estimate is at the low end of what would be required.  There are twice as many people in Charlottesville living Charlottesville below the $35,797 income level than are living below $17,600.

Cox explained to Council that it is challenging to find accurate numbers of people living in poverty in the City because Charlottesville is home to such a large number of students.  Recently, the State Department of Social Services paid the U.S. Census Bureau to do a special re-tabulation to remove college students earning less than $5,150, military persons and those living in group quarters from their poverty counts.  This reduced the apparent poverty rate from 22% to about 11%, according to Cox.

Director of Social Services Buz Cox

Cox presented the City’s anti-poverty initiatives, saying that the City generally targets nine issues facing people in poverty:
1. Affordable housing
2. Food and nutrition
3. Affordable and quality health care
4. Equal access to quality education
5. Dependable and affordable transportation
6. Quality and affordable child care
7. Opportunities for sustainable work that pays a living wage
8. Availability of adequate income supports
9. Care for the elderly and disabled

Mayor Dave Norris said “these are all good initiatives, but there are not that many of these here that are going to reach down and pull people out of poverty.”  Mayor Norris then asked that
Michael Harvey, Executive Director of the Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development share ideas about how the City could accomplish these goals.

“You need to customize your workforce support system to meet the needs of your employers,” Harvey said. He recommended the City should make a move to get ahead of the problem and break the cycle, pointing out that the chronically unemployed in the area need to be addressed.   Harvey explained that while the African American community makes up 22% of the population, they consistently make up 40-60% of the unemployed people in Charlottesville.

Additionally, Cox said that what the city needs is more education and training, a second chance program for ex-offenders, to stop stereotypes and generalizations, continued financial assistance after employment, incentives to save money while living in public housing, mentoring, more resources and support for children and teens.

“We continue to create a lot of service level jobs that don’t create a lot of upward mobility,” said Councilor Julian Taliaferro, explaining that other cities may have more opportunities to provide manufacturing positions.  He suggested apprenticeship programs where workers could learn more advanced skills.

Harvey explained that there are good jobs for those without higher education, just thirty or forty minutes away.  He asked that the City identify the other issues in “connecting the labor surplus to the labor need.”

Karen Waters of the Quality Community Council recognized the work being done to improve regional transit but explained that part of the issue is some citizens cannot drive.  “If you have a felony or you’re behind on child support, you lose your drivers’ license,” said Waters.  “Even if you can get one of these jobs… you’ve been denied the privilege of driving.”  In order to address this issue Mayor Norris suggested that regional employers might work with the City to establish a carpool or van system.

City Councilor Holly Edwards emphasized the need for individual case management and personal relationships to help people with specific challenges, providing someone who can connect the resources with those who need them.  Harvey suggested that the one stop workforce center was meant to provide these types of “triage” services.

Councilor Edwards explained that in the examples the Councilors were presented, the cities were “a catalyst in creating opportunities for economic success.”  She suggested that Council define what “economic justice means for our City” and that Charlottesville become a leader in providing opportunities for citizens.  She suggested that the next step for identifying problems and working through possible solutions should be a town hall meeting to hear people’s needs.

Councilor Taliaferro suggested that the City should set measurable, specific goals as to what it would like to accomplish in this area.  It was then suggested that the City prioritize funding for non-profit organizations based on their objectives.

Mayor Norris summarized the dialogue and Councilors agreed to move forward bringing in additional stakeholders to help set measurable, specific goals in the spirit of public-private partnerships.

Fania Gordon