Monday, November 16, 2009

Untangling the Social Safety Net

The relationship between our region's economic and social challenges is vexing. Every day another story and every story another insight into the complex nature of the variables at play. One ray of hope is the work of the United Way, as it develops a plan for shifting its annual grant funding process from "individual program initiatives" to "collective community priorities" that bring a common focus to the work of agencies and organizations throughout the area. In addition, the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties is focusing many of its strategic efforts on addressing root causes of these challenges, like their work to facilitate the improvement of literacy in our region.

Any search for the root causes of our region's societal problems must address the need to break the multi-generational cycle of poverty and how easy it is for people to get tangled up in the social safety net this country provides. Rather than providing temporary support for people as originally intended, we often hear about the myriad social service programs that, sometimes, act more like anchors than wings, leaving individuals and families negotiating lifestyles full of limitations. I think we need a new paradigm.

For many, education can be a tangle proof safety net. When speaking to first generation college students, I often highlight the fact that an education is something no one can take away from them. The challenge is to get children at an early age thinking about, and believing in, the successful completion of high school and the real possibility of attending college. The ironic component to this challenge is that those individuals living in poverty are not aware that the financial disadvantages they face every day qualify them for full financial aid, making college attendance not only financially possible, but realistically achievable!

It's a matter of connecting with these students and families early - and often - and getting them the information they need. Our job is to demonstrate the possibilities, providing motivation to break the cycle of helplessness and hopelessness; to release them from the anchor disguised as a safety net.

Programs like Upward Bound and campus visits for elementary and middle school students have proven themselves to be great models to expose younger students to these possibilities. MVCC has made significant strides in this area. However, I think our position in the community is such that MVCC must play a more central role in addressing these issues – a role that will take much effort, focus and creativity. If you have any thoughts on this subject, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.