Those “now hiring” signs spotted all over town are welcome proof of a robust economy. They also are misleading.
Yes, entry-level jobs aren't hard to come by for individuals with basic skills and a willingness to work. But a surplus of low-wage jobs doesn't mean everyone in Fort Wayne and Allen County is prospering. Paychecks that scarcely cover basic living expenses fall far short for too many families and individuals.
These are the ALICE households – Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed. Fortunately, United Way of Allen County recognizes the challenges these households face and officials there are changing their funding approach to address that.
“Back in 2017, our board voted to focus our efforts, moving from an age continuum of outcomes to a focus on the challenges facing working families that are struggling to survive,” said David Nicole, local agency president and CEO. “The work we are going to be doing as we move forward is going to be focused on the issues facing theALICE families.”
Nearly a quarter of Allen County households – about 33,000 – have an annual income above the federal poverty level but below the financial stability line. A series of “community conversations” led the United Way board to its new focus, Nicole said, with a realization that no one organization can successfully address the challenges faced by so many families.
Sue Ehinger, a Parkview Health executive who is vice chair of the United Way board, said the organization's Community Impact Committee examined whether efforts were truly making a difference and found that every partner agency had a different way of measuring outcomes.
“The community conversations really helped us, but from a personal perspective, it felt like the United Way was all over the board, and not really able to show the impact we wanted to make,” she said of the committee's work.
To that end, United Way will now focus its efforts, including funding support, on connecting youth and adults to essential life skills, to leveraging resources that will help low-income households become economically stable and by investing in quality child care and early-childhood education.
United Way also will engage in more advocacy work, as it did last year in taking a stand against a harmful payday-lending bill. Legislation sponsored by two Fort Wayne lawmakers would have allowed loans of up to $1,500 at rates equivalent to as much as 222 percent annually. It passed the House but failed to get a hearing in a Senate committee.
It's a wise decision for United Way to raise its advocacy profile – it makes no sense to help struggling families without speaking up when state policies threaten to prolong their struggles.
The organization's new direction will create challenges for some partner agencies that have long depended on United Way funding, but it comes after extended discussions and from sound reasoning. Over time, the new focus should allow more resources to be directed to some of the agencies as more of the community's struggling households gain financial stability.