Monday, April 5, 2010

Debt. Poverty. Then What?

At a recent Rotary presentation we heard from the Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) talking about debt. For me, the presentation was one of those moments where something of which I've been generally aware was suddenly magnified. Periodically, we see news reports about the mind-numbing level of personal debt in this country. The Utica branch of the CCCS sees it every day. It has about 350 people seeking counsel every month. A while ago, it used to see people walking in with an average debt of $30,000 (mostly credit card) and could help about forty five percent, in terms of getting fees reduced and debt restructured. For the past two years or so, its clients now come in with between $50,000 and $100,000 of debt piled up. CCCS says that these levels are so deep they can only help about twenty percent of the cases reduce and restructure their debt. Bankruptcy cases, on the other hand, represent fifty percent of the CCCS load.

In some cases, people try to hold on to material-based lifestyles long after debt or job loss have transformed personal economies. An increasingly large portion of CCCS's client base finds itself at the other end of this spectrum. Having never seen affluence, they are bottoming out in their own chapter of generational poverty. But much of this landscape is changing. John Zogby, in his book “The Way We’ll Be”, cites survey research that indicates people are increasingly looking to escape many of the trappings of affluence and leave more balanced, meaningful lives. In my opinion, a return to fiscal sanity - both personal and institutional - can't come soon enough.

David Mathis (MVCC Trustee and MVCC Alumnus of Merit) discussed a related view recently, in an O-D guest editorial, about the recent New York State Poverty Report. Federal guidelines define poverty based on household size (e.g., less than $22,050 for a household of four, etc.). Almost fifteen percent of Oneida County residents live in poverty; slightly more than twelve percent cite the high school diploma as their highest level of education; and less than four percent have earned a bachelor’s degree. Twenty percent of households in the cities of Utica and Rome are headed by single parents. In Oneida County, of families in poverty, a majority (56%) are headed by single parents. Almost one of every three Oneida County residents living in poverty is currently employed. Overall, more than 31,000 of the 231,000 people in Oneida County are living in poverty. A quarter of all Oneida County children are poor by definition. When we know generational poverty is a difficult cycle to break and we know one in four children in our community is being raised in poverty, intentional action is needed to secure a better future for our community.

The burdens and barriers faced by so many poor in our community are significant. Apart from the fact that the overwhelming body of research tells us so, we know intuitively that education is the single best way out of poverty. We, at MVCC, can pride ourselves on the rich history of providing access to opportunity. But, I think, access is defined too often by many as "keeping tuition as low as possible." And, frankly, that definition is simply too narrow. The time has come for us to think beyond the "traditional" concept of access. We must think more broadly. We need to think in terms of "delivery"....and (dare I say it again?) "serving" those most in need. For example:
• How do our current class offerings fit for the single parent looking for a way out of poverty?
• How do our current hours of operation fit for the nearly one in three individuals living in poverty who are currently working and wondering when they’ll ever fit in going to college?
• While we regularly enroll thirty percent of recent Oneida County high school graduates, we know there are significant sectors of our community that can’t find their way to college fairs and open houses. How do we reach them?

Addressing these issues and breaking these barriers will take creativity and attention. If we, as a community college aspiring to excellence, are to remain proud of the role we play in this region, what must we do to address these issues - and others - to insure that the MVCC mission is as relevant to tomorrow's students as it has been for those who have come to us in the past?
MVCC will be hosting the second annual Poverty Symposium this June in partnership with Mohawk Valley Community Action and the Resource Center for Independent Living. That, in and of itself, is a good thing. But I believe there’s more to do. Let's join together to make sure MVCC is doing ALL it can do to help create a bright future today....tomorrow....and all the days after that, for every member of this wonderful region.

If you have any thoughts on this, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.