Grand Forks Sharpens Poverty Focus

JOB WANTED: Parent seeks job with flexible hours and child care/educational allowance. Wages must increase to pay rent, utilities, medical expenses for next summer's broken arm and replacement of a shot car transmission in 2020. Employee requires other cash advances upon request, plus $13,000 bonus after five years.

Some say work with that kind of financial stability might sound too good to be true. But housing experts say not only is it possible, the focused plan is right on the money in making a difference for the 10 to 20 percent of people living in poverty in Grand Forks.

The U.S. Census Bureau puts the city's poverty rate at 20.4 percent for the 2011-2015 period. However, a separate Census Bureau study in 2013 found that poverty rates often are elevated in cities with large populations of off-campus students not living with parents or other relatives.

When that sector of the Grand Forks population was excluded, and using data from the 2009-2011 American Community Survey, the poverty rate moved down from 18.4 percent to 10.4 percent.

But even if students are driving up the overall poverty rate, social service agencies and economic development officials agree poverty remains a problem and everyone must play a role in fighting it. Recently, increased efforts have focused on poverty and jobs as the way out.

That's exactly the goal of DeAnn Kerzman. She is one of two coordinators of the federal Family Self-Sufficiency Program at the Grand Forks Housing Authority. She says 91 people currently are enrolled in the five-year employment and asset-building plan, which was established in 1990 by the Bush administration. In the first half of this year alone, the program has paid out $60,264.

"For some people, it's a life-changing experience," Kerzman said. "We have some clients who have become homeowners—that's everybody's dream—and a lot of people pay down their credit cards or outstanding debt."

Still others train for trade careers or enroll in college to earn degrees to land them better jobs.

How it works

Anyone who receives housing assistance through a Housing Choice Voucher is eligible to apply if he is in good standing with his lease and is motivated to seek financial independence through work.

With a voucher, the portion of rent an individual must pay is based on income. Ordinarily, as one's income increases, so does his portion of the rent. But with FSS, he has extra incentive to work or seek higher wages because the additional amount he pays out of pocket goes into a separate "savings" account.

For example, say an individual starts with no income and housing assistance pays the full $600 rent. Then, he gets a job and his share of rent is adjusted to $200 a month. He pays the landlord $200, and housing assistance pays $400. The $200 difference in federal aid goes back to him in the form of an escrow account.

"It works really well for highly motivated, goal-oriented people," Kerzman said. "We have a lot of people who are students going to school to get a job or a better-paying job."

The average monthly escrow is $294, but Kerzman says some people earn as much as $800 a month. And at the end of the contract, one successful graduate collected more than $25,000 in escrow. The entire amount is hers to use however she wants.

The contract does require participants to write measurable goals related to employment—goals such as "get a job, maintain full-time employment, complete a GED."

During the program, they also receive education on topics such as career counseling, budget management, home ownership and job training.

If they hit a bump along the way, they can request a portion of their escrow. This is where the "child care, broken arm or shot transmission" come into play. Participants also are allowed interim deductions for education or training.

"That's the good thing about this program," Kerzman said. "We can tailor it to their specific preferences. Not everybody is going to go to school."

One successful graduate, a mother of four, attained her commercial driver's license and soon was making so much money that she no longer needed assistance.

Another single parent earned a registered nursing degree. Yet another earned a master's degree. Kerzman said the program may be expanded to include more eligible participants this fall, but it already has given hundreds the tools they need to find jobs and leave poverty behind.

"The great myth is that people who are struggling and getting housing assistance don't work," Kerzman said. "The truth is most of them are working. Their income level just isn't at a living wage."

Clear focus

Pat Berger, the president and CEO of United Way of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks & Area, says that's where a lot of the working poor fall through the cracks.

It's also one of the reasons her organization decided to focus on a single goal: reducing poverty. United Way raised more than $1 million in its last campaign, and this was the first year grants were decided and disbursed on that singular criteria. It allows a bigger impact and helps both prospective and current donors better understand the message and know how their dollars are being spent, Berger said.

"We aren't going to eliminate poverty in our community. Nobody can," she said. "But we certainly can lower the number of people who are living in poverty. That's our big, bold goal. We will be lifting people out of poverty."

Berger cites the North Dakota Compass—a project tracking social indicators—and the Census when she says Grand Forks has the highest percentage of poverty among the state's four largest cities. The raw statistics say Grand Forks had 10,391 people, or 20.4 percent of its population, living in poverty in 2011-2015. Fargo, Bismarck and Minot ranked at 14.9, 9.6 and 8.1 percent, respectively.

Berger and United Way want to push Grand Forks to the back of the pack by 2030.

"I haven't been anywhere in Grand Forks lately where I haven't seen 'help wanted' signs, and it isn't because people are lazy," Berger said. "People are working in Grand Forks, but it's the working poor who are falling into these poverty situations."

Economy strong

Keith Lund, president and CEO of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., says the economy is strong and he supports the idea behind United Way's focused investment.

"Sometimes if you spread resources too thin, it's difficult to have an impact," he said. "But if you focus those resources, you're better able to move the dial."

The role of the EDC in the economic landscape is to recruit and work with those primary sector companies that bring new wealth to the community and create jobs across all pay grades.

"There is poverty and a real need in this region to support people out of poverty," Lund said. "The EDC and economic development programming can support this by helping to create a diverse portfolio of career opportunities—jobs for people who didn't pursue education beyond high school all the way to those who have Ph.D.s in specific disciplines."

Lund also said many of the primary sector companies have programs to help employees pursue more education and training to help them advance.

"Having those entry-level career opportunities is extremely important," Lund said. "They give people the ability to start at a company and progress through the ranks to earn a greater income."

Jobs outlook

Keith Reitmeier, eastern region director for Job Service North Dakota, says the nonseasonally adjusted unemployment rate was just 2.3 percent in Grand Forks County in June, down from 2.7 percent in June 2016.

He said there were 1,273 job openings in Grand Forks County in July, compared with 1,917 job openings in the same month last year. That's about 33 percent fewer job openings.

"Health care always has strong demand for workers, along with food prep and serving positions," he said. "There's also strong demand in the transportation sector for people with their commercial driver's license."

Reitmeier said retail and related sales jobs are another strength.

"They might be entry-level pay to start, but you can work your way up fairly quickly," he said. "We love to help people move to self-sufficiency to a job that has potential to grow with them as their skills grow. Over and over again, we hear from employers 'Give us somebody who wants to work, has a good attitude and is willing to learn, and we'll help them grow.' "

Job Service has two large job fairs in the spring and the fall, and a third, smaller Second Chances Job Fair for potential employees who may have had some issues with the law.

Reitmeier also said the state is working to expand apprenticeship programs in energy, manufacturing, health care and information technology.

"It's amazing where you can go, but you have to start somewhere," Reitmeier said. "The rest is up to you."


Source: Janelle Vonasek ( 08/04/17)