A soldier in the poverty war

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For generations, Robert Caldwell ’82 says fighting urban poverty in America meant providing relief in the form of food, clothing, and medical support to the poor. That’s how he used to think about it too. But after a few years of trying that as part of a church group in the early 1990s, the Columbus native had a revelation: It wasn’t working. At the end of the day, all those people he had helped were still poor.

“What I realized was that fighting poverty required a different approach,” says Caldwell, a 25-year community service veteran. The key to getting people out of poverty, it seemed, wasn’t solving their short-term problems with relief; it was offering long-term solutions, beginning with employment and a decent income.

On Jan. 7, the White House released a progress report on the “War on Poverty,” which began 50 years ago in 1964. They cited some success in the form of a decline in the percentage of the nation’s population considered to be living in poverty—26 percent in 1967 compared to 16 percent in 2012. But they also admitted there’s still plenty of work to do in the war, and Caldwell is in the midst of the battle.

He’s founded a number of community development programs based on these ideas, including Work WORKS, a program developed through his nonprofit, AnswerPoverty.org. Work WORKS partners with private industry to provide employment for people living in poverty. So if, say, a company is planning to open a location in Columbus, Caldwell says they can partner with his program to help prepare local residents to work in the new location.

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The training that Work WORKS offers isn’t technical. It focuses on developing employment soft skills—and not the traditional résumé-honing and interview outfit advice of many other employment programs for the poor.

“Employers don’t really care about those things,” says Caldwell. “They are looking for specific characteristics in their employees.” The kinds of things, he says, that might seem intuitive to people familiar with what he calls “a culture of work,” but not to those who have grown up surrounded by unemployment.

The six-year-old program stresses four core lessons: showing up on time, prepared to work; doing the job you’re hired to do; getting along with your co-workers; and a willingness to be supervised. “These are universal employment requirements for everyone from the CEO to the custodian,” he says.

Caldwell, who received an Alumni Citation from Denison in 2011, also sees this kind of program as a way to rebuild urban communities. “When we started to ship all the manufacturing jobs overseas, an unintended consequence was the decimation of many urban communities,” he says. Those steady jobs that once kept people in the middle class were gone. With no meaningful job opportunities decade after decade, more and more people got pulled into what is now a generational cycle of poverty.

“So the challenge now is to change our paradigm from relief to development,” says Caldwell. “If we can start to create living-wage jobs that are accessible to those folks trapped in the cycle of poverty, they can begin to move their own lives forward.” Then impoverished families and communities can finally experience long-term economic success.

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