Posted Winston-Salem Journal: Monday, May 30, 2016 8:30 pm

By Bob Feikema Guest columnist

Poverty is front and center in Winston-Salem, thanks to efforts of our city’s Poverty Thought Force, the highly publicized national Red Nose Day and the State of the Community meeting hosted by Mayor Allen Joines, which addressed the impact of the steep decline in median income in the metro area over the past 15 years.

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Bob Feikema, President and CEO of Family Services

Conversations about the causes and solutions to the city’s growing poverty rate are taking place in board rooms, conference rooms and living rooms. But as the renowned journalist H.L. Mencken observed, “You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”

As the area’s first “anti-poverty” agency, Family Services has learned a lot about poverty over the past 110 years. Here are some of the enduring lessons.

Addressing poverty requires compassion. In 1905, a telephone operator by the name of Annie Grogan began her mission of assisting the poor in our community. She founded Family Services (called Associated Charities at the time), the first organized private charity in Winston-Salem. Miss Annie was known as “the mother of charity.” She combined compassion with a genius for organizing community resources to meet the needs of the poor and assist them to become self-supporting. Though assistance was often limited to those considered “deserving,” our area’s first anti-poverty effort was rooted in compassion.

Poverty is structural. In the 1930s the city confronted a calamity — the Great Depression. It was a crisis for which government was ill-prepared. Family Services stepped up to administer federal relief funds to those in need. The Depression showed how systemic factors can produce poverty. It was the failure of the economic system, not flaws in the character of the poor, that created widespread poverty. This lesson was learned again in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Poverty is multi-generational. The postwar economic boom promised an era of prosperity for all. However, within economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s “Affluent Society” lay social critic Michael Harrington’s “Other America” — in segregated inner cities, isolated Appalachian hollows and among the elderly. In 1965 a “War on Poverty” was declared and the community turned to Family Services to provide Forsyth County’s Head Start program, which the agency continues to operate to the present day. Head Start recognizes the intergenerational nature of poverty and works to improve the self-sufficiency of parents in the present while developing the capacities of their three to four-year-old children to escape poverty in the future. And with the recent opening of our Early Head Start program for children birth to 36 months, over 600 families annually participate in both programs.

Poverty is associated with family structure. In the 1970s and ’80s, the American family experienced momentous change. The number of children under 18 living in a household headed by a single parent increased from 10 percent of all families in 1970 to 24 percent in 2013. This “feminization of poverty” refers to the fact that over half of all families in poverty are headed by female single parents. Family Services responded to these challenges with the expansion of its counseling and domestic violence programs.

Poverty is a product of isolation. By the 1990s, the loss of manufacturing and middle-skill jobs had risen to a flood. Many of these jobs left the city (and even the country). The jobs that replaced them, often at significantly lower wages, were often located in suburban and exurban areas. The way out of poverty increasingly depended on having reliable transportation to get to work. In 2000, Family Services responded by establishing the Ways to Work program to provide low-interest car loans to enable working parents to commute to and from work. It’s a critical issue. A Harvard study of upward mobility found commuting time to be the single strongest factor for escaping poverty. The longer the average commute in a county, the worse the chances of low-income families moving up the economic ladder.

Eliminate poverty in the future by investing in early childhood now. A scientific consensus has emerged about the profound impact that high quality early childhood development programs can have on the social and income mobility of poor children. Children who participate in these programs are more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college. As adults they are more likely to be employed, own a home and have health insurance. And they are far less likely to spend time in jail. That’s why Family Services has convened a task force representing various sectors of the community to develop a plan to make Forsyth County the first county in North Carolina with a universal pre-K system. We are committed to creating a community in which all of our children have the opportunity to succeed in school and in life.

If we hope to have a prosperous community in the future we will need to make a major investment in the development and education of our youngest children today.