U.Va. Class Shares Three-Pronged Strategy To End Local Poverty

One University of Virginia course set itself an ambitious goal for this semester: to create a well-researched report on how to end poverty in Charlottesville.

The dozen students in the course, “Field Work in Social Enterprise: Reducing Poverty in Charlottesville,” shared their findings with Charlottesville City Council on Monday night, the culmination of four months of community visits, stakeholder interviews, consultation with national experts and studying strategies used in other cities. For many of the graduating fourth-year students, this was also their final academic work at U.Va.

The class identified three strategies with proven results in other cities: bundling social services to more comprehensively support those struggling to break out of poverty; boosting employment through community-based social enterprises; and promoting community asset growth. Linking those three pillars could be a roadmap for ending poverty in the city, the class suggested. 

The course instructor, Lauren Purnell, a doctoral candidate in business ethics at U.Va.’s Darden School of Business, introduced the class presentation, and then six students took turns explaining their findings with a slide presentation. Falling last on the evening’s agenda, the presentation started around 10 p.m., with a thin audience of about 25 in the council chamber.

“In this class, the students were charged with looking at social enterprise in cities all across America ... as well as conducting stakeholder interviews and meetings trying to understand from the field, ‘How is poverty experienced in Charlottesville?’ and what may we do as a city to address it,” Purnell said.

This semester marked the second offering of this course, and like last year, the course began by studying the Orange Dot Project’s 2011 report on the extent and contours of poverty in Charlottesville and meeting with report co-author Ridge Schuyler, who Purnell noted was present in the audience.

The students then interviewed almost 30 local stakeholders engaged with the low-income community; visited more than 20 local nonprofits, social enterprises and institutions; and piggybacked on their Spring Break travels to visit social enterprises farther afield, from North Carolina to Miami, Canada and Mexico.

The class also did phone interviews with staff at a number of well-regarded social enterprises in other cities, including Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Manchester Bidwell in Pittsburgh, and closer to home, Rappahannock Goodwill Industries in Fredericksburg.

The class was sponsored by U.Va. Student Entrepreneurs for Economic Development  and cross-listed in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and the Curry School of Education.

According to a 2012 Congressional report (co-written by U.Va. graduate Emily Harpster, director of the SparkPoint Initiative at United Way of the Bay Area), individuals who receive bundled social services – such as combining job skills training with education grants and job placement – are three times more likely to meet short-term economic outcome goals on the road to financial independence, compared to those who receive a single service, second-year student Phoebe Weatherall said.

The same report found even greater benefits for those who received bundled social services that spanned three major categories: employment and career development; benefits and work supports; and financial and asset services. Those who received this “bundling across bundles” were five times more likely to meet short-term economic outcome goals, Weatherall said.

At least six local nonprofits already do some one-stop service bundling, but substantially expanding bundled service will require high-level collaboration among local nonprofits and service providers, noted Weatherall, a pre-commerce major. This won’t be easy, she said, because it means adopting a client-based focus, shared information technology platforms, agreement on joint metrics and reporting practices, and transparency to the public. But when services are client-focused and better coordinated, a coach or mentor can match each client with “best-fit” agencies and services, reducing fatigue among both clients and providers, Weatherall said.

At least 40 U.S. cities have overcome those hurdles to successfully bundle services, following a model piloted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that has helped more than 13,000 families rise out of poverty. Depending on the city, the shift to this model has been led by various institutions, including community colleges in North Carolina, the United Way in the San Francisco area and private or community foundations in other cities.

Bundling services improves outcomes, but it must be matched with job opportunities, said Shelby Sutton, a fourth-year Jefferson Scholar majoring in economics and religious studies. A paycheck provides dignity, self-respect and hope, especially for the hard-to-employ, such as ex-felons, who have repeatedly been discouraged by society, she said. Social enterprises – businesses dedicated at least in part to accomplish some societal or environmental good, like Charlottesville’s existing WorkSource Enterprises – provide a paycheck for those who are still learning the hard and soft skills of job readiness, which require time and practice.

Social enterprises that could be a good match for Charlottesville include laundry, landscaping or facility maintenance services that could generate some revenue by serving local anchor institutions like hospitals, Sutton said. Another option is a food-processing cooperative, the foundations of which have already been laid by the Vinegar Hill Canning Cooperative and the flash-freezing program of the Jefferson Area Board for Aging.

The third leg of the class’ strategy – promoting community asset growth – is a “proven key to breaking the cycle of poverty,” fourth-year student Weston Reynolds said.

Encouraging small-business ownership is one of the best mechanisms to rapidly increase community wealth. While only a small minority of those currently in poverty are likely to ever own a business, the entrepreneurial mindset primes men and women to recognize the value of their own talents and skills, and to focus on possibility, creation and innovation, said Reynolds, a political and social thought major in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Charlottesville could better support entrepreneurship through business incubators or programs that provide aspiring entrepreneurs access to mentors, financial resources and a community of supportive fellow entrepreneurs, Reynolds said. The city could also incentivize recent college graduates to stay in town or to move here with tax breaks, housing stipends or student loan forgiveness programs.

"I think you have some great ideas, and did some good work," Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja said.

Councilor Kathy Galvin and Huja both asked for detailed recommendations, concrete next steps and appropriate contacts, including experts cited in the report who might be willing to speak with councilors.

The class will include such details in their final comprehensive written report, which should be ready in a couple weeks, Purnell said.

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