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Address economic opportunity and keep Community Action

Times are tough, and it’s particularly hard for those in poverty. Today in Minnesota 10.9 percent (USDA) of the population is living in poverty, up from 7.9 percent 10 years ago. Even though former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the state had a campaign to cut chronic homelessness in half, the latest survey from Wilder Research reported a 25 percent increase in homelessness over 2006. Increased poverty is bad for our future.

Forty-seven years ago, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson united citizens in the cause of fighting a War on Poverty. With the divisions we see today, addressing economic opportunity for all could help bring us together. We need the will, planning by the community, sharp strategies and local infrastructure. Just as Community Action Agencies were the cornerstone for LBJ’s initiative, CAAs are needed today to address the disparities in income and opportunity.

With citizens’ desire to see cooperation in government, it is heartening to see that the governor and legislative leaders of both parties continue state funding of CAAs for the next biennium. At the federal level the CAA budget was initially slated to be zeroed out. The most recent proposal is for a 50 percent reduction in CAA funding. This is not adequate.

During tough economic times the 28 Community Action Agencies and 11 Tribal Governments of the Minnesota Community Action network provide a safety net, but also are important for planning at the local level to create opportunities for economic security. Community Action unites voices for affordable housing, access to transportation, health care and good jobs for local residents. CAAs provide services, but they also work to ensure the availability of services for those in need.

Record of service in 2010: real impact
During 2010 in Minnesota CAAs helped 3,657 people obtain a job, 46,407 residents received access to education, and more than 54,000 individuals received food assistance. The $7.5 million Community Service Block Grant and state funds leveraged $321 million in additional funding. ARRA funds that went to Minnesota CAAs created 849 jobs and helped save 766 other jobs. This is real action and impact.

Community Action has changed and must continue to do so. The national Community Action Partnership recently issued a report: “Facing the New Reality: Preparing Poor America for Harder Times Ahead.” Poverty is with us and we need new approaches to ending it. The report issues a sobering warning that we need to be prepared for unprecedented hardship, economic turmoil, resource scarcity and increasing number of Americans living in poverty.

Community Action Agencies understand that they must be well managed, continuously assess the state and causes of poverty in their communities, develop sound strategies, and set clear and measurable goals. Agencies, through the Community Action Partnership, are saying “Expect high performance and innovation, and hold us accountable.”

Time to renew our will to act
We are divided as a country and state. Although there may be differences in what the solutions to poverty may be, it’s time to renew our will to do something. No one questions that our economy will be stronger with people working and sharing in economic prosperity. Community Action is poised to rally communities and take action for economic opportunity.

Congress should continue to support Community Action and demonstrate that our deficits will not be solved on the backs of the poor.

Jim Scheibel is Executive in Residence at the Hamline University School of Business and a former mayor of St. Paul.

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