One Athens fights against poverty, economy

Poverty is brutal. And when the economy has taken a turn for the worse, brutal is just the tip of the iceberg. Luckily, in Athens-Clarke County, there is a group relentlessly trying to end poverty and its ugliness, despite its newly found struggles.


One Athens, formerly Partners for a Prosperous Athens, began three and a half years ago due to a shocking poverty report.


“In 2002, the ‘Study of Persistent Poverty’ was funded and conducted by Congress and really opened everyone’s eyes,” Matt Bishop, coordinator for the University’s Initiative on Poverty, said. “After the University conducted the study, there was an acknowledgment that something on campus should be done with poverty, and the Poverty Initiative was formed.”


The study found that there were 91 counties in Georgia that have had poverty rates among the nation’s worst over the last three census periods.


When you take persistent poverty counties with all states in southeast, Georgia is poorest of southeast,” Bishop said.


The Initiative was then formed, and now helps fund One Athens, closely working with all organizations that fight to end poverty.


One Athens, located downtown Athens, although has good intentions, is struggling just like everyone else.


“One thing that we have had to [change due to the economy] is adopt many of our initiatives into other projects that have already gotten started, that in turn are able to make more progress” Delene Porter, president/CEO of One Athens, said.


For example, the school district is working on the Career Academy and the charter elementary school, and UGA’s Human Resources is working on the Young Dawgs internship program, she said.


Another major problem that One Athens has is no annual meeting. For the past three years, One Athens has had an annual meeting that brought the community together to figure out the progress of One Athens. This year, however, one is not yet planned. (Last year’s was held in March).


“We have no meeting planned this year, unfortunately, due to a setback in support,” Porter said. “People will come, but we have not had the tools to fund and plan it at this time and we are mainly focused on the implementation process.”


The group does have smaller meetings throughout the year, but most of their feedback is received at its annual meetings.


While not having an annual meeting is a setback for One Athens, it’s not alone.


“Jobs and education are the biggest issues facing poverty right now in Athens,” Porter said. “Athens needs to focus on retention and expansion of existing businesses as well as investing in entrepreneurs; more of a buy local emphasis.”


For the education sector, Porter suggests creating engaging schools – hands-on, extended school day/year, smaller class rooms, and zero to three-year-old quality child care programs.  For adult learners, she suggests making everything from GED to graduate degree training more accessible with the help of UGA, Athens Tech, and other colleges in our backyard.


“Poverty is a vicious cycle, so when get into an economic downturn, that really impacts a lot of other things, in turn of working poor,” Bishop said. “Without wages, people cannot afford health insurance, without health insurance, people cannot afford preventative care at their doctors’ offices and usually end up in emergency room. And this affects society as a whole. It’s a cost to you and me because our insurance goes up, and things like this are overlooked.”


A lot of not for profit organizations are operated through philanthropic giving, and with the economic downturn, they are not receiving as much. Service organizations, such as One Athens, that are helping poor are facing challenges; it’s part of a vicious cycle, he said.


Bishop, who also works with the Office of the Vice President for Public Service and Outreach, said we have not seen all the affects of the economy yet.


“Every year, the University of Georgia Research Foundation gives away four to five grants to focus on poverty,” Bishop said. “So, depending on how many they give away this year could mean less money to end the fight.”


While the “fight” seems endless, Porter has hope.


“It’s a pretty hard combination of issues that we are facing, but nonprofits are very adept in finding ways to serve their clients,” she said. “In many ways, nonprofits are more agile and determined than the for-profit community.”


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