Franklin County partnering with business, nonprofits to battle poverty

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Expanding the child-care subsidy and universal preschool are among the proposals to be evaluated in a $13 million-plus effort over the next five years.

Franklin County plans to invest more than $13 million over the next five years as part of a larger effort to address stubbornly high poverty in a county with one of the state’s lowest unemployment rates.

The initiative includes the establishment of an “Innovation Center,” which will be headed by the county’s Job and Family Services office and housed at the Columbus Partnership, a membership-based organization of area CEOs. The Innovation Center’s leadership council is to include representatives of government agencies, nonprofits and private businesses.

“This is absolutely a three-way partnership, and the business community is working with us and the nonprofit sector,” Commissioner Marilyn Brown said. “They are all in.”

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Among the goals and ideas for easing economic struggle is an effort to determine the feasibility of an expanded child-care subsidy and universal preschool program open to all Franklin County youth.

County officials also plan to implement racial-equity training to tackle racism in the community, increase the wages for county employees to at least $15 an hour and expand affordable housing, among other goals.

“There is no silver bullet; there is no magic wand,” Commissioner Kevin Boyce said. But as the county grows, “Everyone should have their own bite at prosperity.”

The recommendations are the result of a yearlong effort that included months of meetings and discussions of ways to provide a path toward economic sustainability for 35,000-plus area families living in poverty and thousands of others struggling to make ends meet.

Researchers have found Columbus to be among the nation’s most economically segregated cities, a problem documented two years ago by The Dispatch in “Dividing Lines,” a three-part series on income disparity in Columbus and Franklin County.

Though Franklin County’s unemployment rate was below 3% in April, 16% of residents live in poverty. The rate among children is nearly 1 in 4.

“We’ve got to create better opportunities in our neighborhoods for children and families,” county Administrator Ken Wilson said. “For this to be the people’s plan, we’ve got to take jobs to where the people are.”

The commissioners paid more than $262,000 to a Tennessee consultant to head the process; the resulting strategic plan is being unveiled to the public Tuesday.

Brown said the results mark the start of a first-of-its-kind effort involving public offices, businesses and nonprofits, all working together.

“We’re full partners here,” said Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership. “We are right in the middle of those conversations.”

There are 13 recommendations and 120 action steps in the plan. Some involve expanded support for existing programs, like Building Futures, a pre-apprenticeship program that connects low-income residents with jobs in building trades, and Forward Cities, which backs entrepreneurship in targeted neighborhoods.

Others are new efforts, including the Innovation Center, with three initial staff members who will work to develop and implement the report’s recommendations. The goal is to spin off the office into a standalone entity in 12 to 18 months, with $2.5 million in initial funding from the county to kick-start the work and matching dollars to be sought from private sources.

Joy Bivens, director of the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services, said action is key. “If this plan becomes a report on a shelf, if we do not move the goals and the strategies within it, it’ll just be another plan,” she said.

County officials also intend to launch training on racial equality, as race issues came up repeatedly during the planning process.

“If you look at the data, whether it’s 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago, it is the same demographic of individuals and the same gender of individuals being impacted by poverty,” Bivens said. “We have to have a real, honest conversation about racism and implicit bias and gender equality.”

Commissioner John O’Grady said the racial disparity discussion was a centerpiece of the poverty effort.

“We can’t move the needle on poverty if we’re going to tiptoe around this issue,” he said.

Among other recommendations, the Franklin County commissioners plan to act in the next couple of weeks to increase the minimum wage of county employees to $15 an hour.

The move would increase wages for 169 employees who earn below that amount, plus up to 50-cent raises for about 1,019 others.

Boyce said the recommendations are a good first step.

“We really needed to have a discussion and zero in on racial disparities and other issues,” he said. “We’ve got quite a ways to go to get to home plate to see the results of our work.”

Trudy Bartley, an associate vice president at Ohio State University who is co-chairing the Innovation Center’s leadership council, said it’s too early for officials to put forth metrics for gauging progress. The other co-chair is Matt Habash, president and CEO of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank.

County officials have scheduled a series of community meetings to provide details of the plan. The first is set for Reynoldsburg on June 17, followed by Westerville on June 18, the Reeb Avenue Center on June 19 and the Columbus Urban League on June 26. Details are available online at commissioners.franklincountyohio.gov/poverty.

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