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New $5M Project LIFT aims to help 3,000 people get themselves out of poverty in 2019

'One flat tire away from losing their job'
Posted: 6:39 AM, Dec 18, 2018
Updated: 2018-12-18 16:49:26Z
UC administrator to lead poverty-fighting effort

CINCINNATI — The new year will bring the launch of a new effort to reduce poverty in Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

The Child Poverty Collaborative in January will launch Project LIFT, a $5 million initiative that aims to impact 1,000 families -- or a total of 3,000 individuals -- in its first year.

Those families will drive the work and determine what they need to lift themselves out of poverty rather than being guided by a specific program, said Sister Sally Duffy, interim co-chair of the Child Poverty Collaborative.

“People felt like services were not getting to them, and that they didn’t necessarily want to be ‘fixed,’” Duffy said.

Instead of paying for more employees at local social service agencies, the money behind Project LIFT will help fund practical needs for families, such as car repairs, eviction prevention or even washers and dryers, said Mary Asbury, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati.

There is much work to be done. The most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that child poverty decreased in Greater Cincinnati in 2017 compared to previous years. But the region still had more than 93,000 children living in poverty, according to Census estimates.

In an exclusive interview with WCPO, Duffy, Asbury and seven other leaders of the Child Poverty Collaborative explained that the new initiative will be centered around five key strategies:

• Employment
• Flexible service coordination
• Transportation solutions
• Wrap-around funding
• And community outreach and engagement.

“Big picture: We’re doing, not just talking,” said Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, a founding member of the collaborative’s executive council. “Things are happening -- real experiences, real family engagement.”

Hamilton County Job & Family Services will play a major role in the initiative to ensure that families are getting all the government services that they are qualified to receive, said Moira Weir, director of Hamilton County JFS.

Moira Weir

“The idea is to max out all the public dollars first to make sure they’re receiving every benefit they can possibly receive,” Weir said. “The frustration for us at JFS has been we can only do so much, but we know our families need so much more.”

Project LIFT, she said, will be able to fill in the gaps that government services cannot.

So far, the Child Poverty Collaborative has raised $1.5 million of the $5 million needed for next year’s work.

Most of that money comes from a personal pledge that Enerfab CEO David Herche has made to donate $1 million per year for five years toward the effort. The rest comes from private funds that the Child Poverty Collaborative had raised.

‘One flat tire away from losing their job’

Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center CEO Michael Fisher said he’s hopeful other local business leaders will be inspired by the Project LIFT strategy and by the example that Herche is setting.

“We have begun framing up that strategy and identifying some prospects,” said Fisher, who also is a founding member of the collaborative’s executive team. “I think we have optimism that we will be able to make good progress on this.”

Project LIFT aims to have lean administrative costs with most of the money invested in the program going directly to individuals and families. It will not reduce any funding that United Way of Greater Cincinnati allocates to local social services agencies.

“Our clients are like one flat tire away from losing their job,” said Neil Tilow, the CEO of Talbert House who has been working on Project LIFT. “We know we’re not going to fix everything, but we think we can reach 1,000 families in 2019.”

The Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce will lead the initiative’s work with employers, which will include “embedded coaching” to help employees through challenges that can interfere with their jobs such as child care and transportation.

“We do think on timing we’ve got an opportunity here because the labor market is tight so employers are more willing to cooperate with lower-skill employees,” Asbury said. “We certainly hope there will be some upward movement in wages.”

The city is doing what it can in terms of wages, Cranley said, by requiring any company that does business with to pay its employees a “living wage.” That’s defined as $15 per hour for full-time workers and about $12 an hour for part-time workers, he said.

Pator Ennis Tait

Dealing with transportation has been one of the most challenging parts of the initiative, Asbury said.

“Everybody knows it’s a big problem,” she said. “They are pretty excited to jump in and work on it. We’re talking with car dealers. And the employers themselves had initiated van pooling.”

Another solution could be to pay employees with cars for an extra half hour at the start of the day and at the end of the day to pick up co-workers and take them home, Duffy said.

All the many organizations that expect to work with families will be sharing information, and families will need to be willing to report information back to Project LIFT so organizers can gauge how well the effort is working, she said.

Pastor Ennis Tait will continue to work on community outreach and engagement to build trust in the process.

“Everybody that touches this poverty collaborative will have a clear understanding -- from the doctor to the teacher to the Latino mom in Price Hill,” Tait said. “The message has been the same: What does that path look like for them, and what does it look like down the road.”

Does community have the will?

Greater Cincinnati Foundation CEO Ellen Katz stressed that the collaborative is continuing to work on major policy changes, too, in addition to Project LIFT.

That work has been quieter, she said, but already has had success.

“For the first time we had the whole entire community rallying around JFS for the children’s services levy,” she said. “It’s a multi-sector approach.”

Now three years into the Child Poverty Collaborative’s work, it’s unclear exactly how many families have been helped so far.

RELATED: ‘The goal is zero children in poverty’

An initiative called One to One was announced about a year ago with much fanfare, and the collaborative learned many important lessons from that pilot program, Duffy said.

United Way of Greater Cincinnati has been tracking the progress of about 400 families through that program and will have results compiled in January, said Ross Meyer, United Way’s interim CEO.

“To be honest and objective, we’ll see how it’s going,” Cranley said.

Mayor John Cranley

The key to success will be looking at “the entire ecosystem,” which includes issues such as mass incarceration and a lack of affordable housing, said Karen Bankston, the former executive director of the Child Poverty Collaborative who left that role earlier this year.

“It’s a scary factor and difficult and challenging, and it doesn’t give you short-term wins,” Bankston told WCPO in a separate interview. “Does the community have the will and tenacity to approach this whole notion of poverty from a holistic perspective? I think the jury is out.”

Katz said it’s not possible for the Child Poverty Collaborative to do everything necessary to reduce poverty and said other efforts are underway to address the need for quality, affordable housing in the region.

Duffy and Fisher stressed that leaders of the Child Poverty Collaborative expect to continue learning and striving as it continues.

“Over the last three years, we’ve listened a lot, we’ve learned a lot, we’ve catalyzed a lot,” Fisher said. “The partnering spirit’s alive and well. It does take the proverbial village, and I think the partnering spirit is a really big part of it.”

More information about the Child Poverty Collaborative is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.