Guest commentary: Poverty, self-sufficiency are complex challenges

Nov. 16, 2013

Partnership brings attention to goals

In February 2012, the 240 attendees at the two-day Brown County 20/20 Envisioning the Future conference generated goals for the community to achieve by the end of the decade.
The visions are grouped around education, overcoming division, economic development, personal and community health and self-sufficiency.
This year, a similar number of people are involved in task forces working to translate the goals into measurable actions. Press-Gazette Media will publish their summary reports through the end of 2013.
A complete look at the ongoing effort is available at


The Bay Area Community Council’s Self-Sufficiency working group was charged by the Brown County 20/20 conference in February 2012, informed by the 2011 Life Study, with stimulating collaboration among agencies and service groups, inspiring a thoughtful dialogue among community leaders, and encouraging a call to action in our community around the topic of poverty and self-sufficiency. The 20/20 conference created the vision:

By the year 2020, Local families are economically self-sufficient and prepared to meet the needs of older and disabled residents.

This means:

Human capital: Everyone has a safe and supportive community around them from childhood into old age that includes neighbors, professionals, emerging leaders and volunteers.

Access: We have a community networking map and the systems and services to assist and support members of the community.

Education: Opportunities nurture and support the whole family from cradle to career, lifelong learning is an active pursuit by everyone and individuals have the skills and knowledge to live the best possible life.

Responsibility: Every person recognizes their shared role and responsibility to contribute to the economic self-sufficiency of the whole community.

More stories about the Brown County 20/20: Envisioning the Future project.

Poverty and self-sufficiency are complex, multi-layered and community dependent. There are commonalities that rise to the surface in most communities as contributing factors: unemployment rate, tax base, economic health, high school dropout rates, post-secondary education rates, median income. Other elements are not as clear: culture or diversity, a community’s political affiliation, size, generosity of its local donors, robust provider network, and willingness to work together.

Strategies, partnerships, history, politics and environment play major roles in the delicate balance of prosperity and poverty. For each community, this balance is personal. Brown County is not alone in scratching its head year after year wondering why there is not a simple set of strategies or new programs that can set the community on the prosperity track. As a result of the 2002 charge from Federal Interagency Council to End Homelessness, 340 communities have written 10-year plans filled with strategies, collaborations, and action plans to end homelessness. All have had certain amounts of success but none have discovered one magical solution.

In 2007, the Bay Area Community Council produced a white paper on poverty, updated this paper in 2009, and today the self-sufficiency working group is tackling this again. In 2007, the council’s committees explored what surfaced for our community as indicators of well-being and poverty in Brown County: children and families, health care, housing, neighborhood services, transportation.

What was it like to live in poverty in 2007 and what is it like today in 2013? In 2007, the BACC described the issue of poverty as significant and “getting worse.” In 2009, the country had been struggling through a recession, and climbing unemployment rates and changes in our political leaders had major impacts on individual families’ income. Things were not looking up.

According to the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, Brown County sustained significant hits following the recession of 2008. The unemployment rate nearly doubled, poverty increased to 10.8 percent, and 1 in 6 children lived in poverty. Today, the number of homeless children are at the highest level in our history, mental health services are still fragmented and not universally available, accessible housing is in short supply, dental care, available through grants and partnerships for those who are uninsured, struggles to keep up with the need.

In 2013, even in the face of growing poverty and homelessness, our community has made several major strides. Multiple summits have been held by forward-thinking agencies and new programs have been developed to increase access to services and reach out to all families. In the area of access, the 2-1-1 collaborative between Brown County United Way, the Aging and Disability Resource Center and Family Services Crisis Center is one such example. In education, the Cradle to Career initiative involving the United Way, Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation is another. Informal neighborhood involvement in the form of Time Banking and Asset Based Community Organizing is long overdue and being explored. In the area of responsibility, funded projects exist supported by the Basic Needs Giving Partnership of the Community Foundation, to create initiatives that look beyond service development but look deep into the root causes of poverty — not a simple task.

We can all agree that a community that develops prosperity plans must also develop poverty plans — this is our personal story, our legacy, our future. Brown County is ready to pull together for a more formal set of strategies capitalizing on the work of the city of Green Bay’s Homeless Working Groups (HOPE). It will require agendas be set aside, all are included, and ears are open. We are ready.

Devon Christianson is the director of the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Brown County. Andy Rosendahl is the neighborhood development specialist for the city of Green Bay.

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If you've ever answered "Who has the ball?" with "It's halftime," you might recognize The Airhead. Check out the characters in our cartoon gallery of oddball fans.

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