October 4-10, 2006

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Dialogue on Poverty

Rich in spirit: Innovative new antipoverty campaigns stress home-ownership, college education and entrepreneurship as keys to success.

To Have and to Hold

Asset-building as an antipoverty strategy

By Bruce Robinson

'I don't think poverty is an intractable problem," insists Helga Lempke. "I think it's a question of will and putting resources toward the problem, because there're certainly a lot of strategies that we know are successful in helping to combat poverty."

This is no idle claim for Lempke, the executive director of Sonoma County's nonprofit Community Action Partners. Next week her agency will host its third annual Dialogue on Poverty conference, a daylong workshop in Santa Rosa intended to foment conversations, she says, that will generate "some movement toward helping low-income people in the North Bay move out of poverty."

To advance those discussions, the conference is focusing in part on the distinctions between "income poverty" and "asset poverty." The Asset Policy Initiative of California (APIC) defines the former as "not having enough financial reserves to manage at the federal poverty level for three months." Asset-poor families, APIC says, "are living one paycheck, one broken refrigerator or one medical emergency away from needing public assistance."

The differences between the two can be dramatic. The Policy Initiative calculates that just 5.8 percent of Sonoma County's population lives in income poverty, but 22.8 percent experience asset poverty. The corresponding figures are slightly lower for Marin County (5.7 percent and 18.2 percent, respectively) and a bit higher (7.2 percent and 24 percent) in Napa County. High housing costs throughout the North Bay are a major factor in the disparities.

Ben Mangan, CEO of Earned Assets Resource Network (EARN) and APIC, explains that "the traditional approach to fighting poverty has been all about income transfers, giving people income so they can get by on a week-to-week or month-to-month basis. But when you really study true upward mobility and what helps people leave poverty, it's investments and assets, like housing and higher education and small business."

But Mangan, who will be a part of two panels at the conference, is well aware that conventional antipoverty programs are weighed down with disincentives for asset accumulation. "Public policy is completely upside down on this," he says. "For example, if you are receiving any kind of assistance through the CalWorks program, but you happen to get a good job and start saving, as soon as you pass the $2,000 level, you begin to lose benefits and you're faced with a choice: Do you save for your kids' education or do you stop saving so you can get food stamps to feed your children? This is clearly not a path to move people to self-sufficiency. It's punitive and shortsighted."

Over the past seven years, a movement known as "asset building" has emerged to counter this deeply entrenched policy. It began with individual development accounts, relates Heather McCullough, another conference speaker who heads the San Francisco nonprofit, Asset Building Strategies. "[Individual development accounts] were just one strategy, but they really catalyzed a whole new way of thinking about what can the public, private and nonprofit sectors be doing to help low-income families to build their financial security."

Part of that process involved examining the fiscal-management strategies and saving incentives that were working for moderate and upper income families, and finding ways to make them accessible to lower income households. "It grew into a whole array of strategies," McCullough says, such as earned income tax credits.

Concurrently, interest in parallel measures--including affordable housing and co-housing, cooperatively owned businesses and more--was also gaining strength. Now it appears that all these ideas are converging around the asset-building concept.

The basic idea builds on America's rich history of national antipoverty measures that have been demonstrably effective, adds Lempke, citing the GI Bill, Medicare, and the indexing of Social Security.

Asset building is developing a mounting interest among policy makers in many states. Mangan cites Virginia and Ohio as two good-sized states that have already eliminated the asset limits from their public-assistance programs. "And what they found is that there is no appreciable change in the number of people who stayed on public benefits just because they now had the opportunity to save." Illinois is now posed to take a similar step, he says, adding, "California happens to be in a great position, because EARN has led a statewide initiative of people to begin championing the idea that you need to help low-wage workers build assets and build wealth to get ahead."

Local success stories, as well as breakout sessions and a panel discussion, will give the concept a high profile at the Poverty Conference, which is subtitled, "Community Solutions: Building Blocks, Not Road Blocks."

"In a way it sounds simplistic," reflects Lempke, "but it's really a big philosophic shift." And Mangan, asked what he wants attendees to take away from the conference, sums it up with a single short word: "Hope."

The third annual panel Dialogue on Poverty is slated for Wednesday, Oct. 11, from 8:30am to 4pm. Glaser Center, 547 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. $79. 707.544.6911.

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