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Progressive Voice: Confronting the Realities of Poverty in Arlington

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Anne Vor der Bruegge

Along with Arlington’s high national rankings for its schools and livability, consider this fact: Arlington is home to tens of thousands of people living in or near poverty. Arlington’s median household income is $110,000, but there are significant income and quality-of-life disparities from one neighborhood to the next.

Nearly 20,000 people in Arlington live below the federal poverty level, which is $25,100 for a family of four — yet living costs for such a household here average three times that. Child care and health care workers, office cleaners, and restaurant, retail and construction workers are likely to be struggling with poverty. Some of Arlington’s baby boomers, disabled individuals and veterans are also among those.

While the statistics are sobering, individuals’ stories illustrate just how precarious living in poverty can be. One woman’s window was broken by a baseball. Confronted by the property manager with a $32 repair fee and worried about being evicted, she desperately handed over the cash. That $32 was her weekly bus fare to work. Looking for a ride made her late, so her manager docked her two shifts. She could no longer pay her babysitter, which meant she lost her job, bringing her back to the real possibility of eviction.

What can be done, collectively, for families that constantly live so close to the edge?

Beginning this fall, Arlington’s Department of Human Services (DHS) and a wide array of nonprofits convened by the Arlington Community Foundation are piloting a new approach with 200 families to break the downward spiral of poverty. Using the Bridges Out of Poverty framework, this public-private partnership represents a re-design of the safety net system to reduce bureaucratic hurdles and strengthen connections so people in poverty can gain traction and move forward.

The 200 Bridges pilot uses a two-generation approach with parents and their children to build opportunities for adequate housing and child care, jobs with better wages, health care, and educational advancement. This united effort involves unprecedented collaboration across the County, nonprofit system and families.

The Bridges Out of Poverty partners have streamlined the myriad consent forms for different organizations into one common form, while still complying with HIPAA privacy rules, so individuals no longer have to repeat their history over and over. They’ve reduced the “agency time” spent navigating the system, so people can use those hours more productively.

200 Bridges goes beyond services that stabilize families (such as emergency shelter or food) to address two important factors recognized in poverty research as requisites for forward mobility: having control over one’s life and a sense of belonging in the community.

A job loss, a catastrophic accident, an abusive partner, or addiction can put any of us in crisis mode. But people with a family legacy of economic security and community connections can recover from these crises far better than those coming from generational poverty. Brain science shows that the toxic stress of living in crisis limits one’s ability to maintain focus and take the long view to make a plan. A broken window and unexpected $32 charge play out very differently for someone in the middle class than for someone who is poor.

Anita Friedman, Director of Arlington County DHS, shares, “We envision that families participating in 200 Bridges will be empowered to identify what they need to thrive, and to more easily connect to the network of resources we have to support them. Our goal is for families to build social and financial capital for themselves and their children.”

Beyond this pilot, what can be done to address the root causes of poverty–too few decent paying jobs, lack of affordable housing, childcare, health care and opportunities for educational advancement?

Arlington County, the Community Foundation and the many nonprofit partners hope to use what is learned through Bridges Out of Poverty and other complementary initiatives to create policies that improve mobility for everyone in Arlington. For example, the experiences of these 200 families will inform efforts underway in Arlington’s Child Care Initiative, which aims to provide more affordable quality child care so that all Arlington children have a strong start in life and their parents can work.

Ultimately, it will take broad community will to acknowledge the reality of poverty in Arlington and support equitable policies and practices to create the conditions for all our residents to reach their potential.

Anne Vor der Bruegge is Director of the Arlington Community Foundation’s Nonprofit Center. She has lived in Arlington since 1982.

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