By Heather Peeler
Do you hear the good news? A few weeks ago, the Census Bureau reported that child poverty is at a historic low. In Virginia, child poverty fell from 15.7% in 2016 to 9.3% in 2020. Although we don’t have specific data for Alexandria, it’s likely that many Alexandria families are part of this trend.
How did so many families manage to move out of poverty? According to Child Trends,
a national research organization, there are three main drivers: the federal child tax credit, pandemic stimulus payments, and expanded eligibility for federal benefits programs. Direct cash assistance coupled with the social safety net is a winning formula.
Thanks to a grant from Economic Opportunity Funders in 2021, ACT provided outreach grants to five community organizations to inform residents about the federal child tax credit and the earned income tax credit. These organizations sent text messages, met with residents at barber shops, collaborated with local houses of worship, and so much more to spread to word so that Alexandrians would benefit from these remarkable programs. (Read more about these outreach efforts at https://www.actforalexandria.org/ initiatives/t/child-tax-credit/)
This news is very encouraging. When we give families direct assistance and the freedom to spend money on things they need, they improve their lives in significant ways.
These successful poverty-reducing efforts bode well for an innovative program the City of Alexandria is launching this fall. Alexandria’s Recurring Income for Success and Equity (ARISE) is a pilot program that will provide direct cash assistance to households at 50% or below the area medium income, $71,150 annually for a family of four. Fueled by the American Rescue Plan Act, ARISE is one way that the City of Alexandria is addressing the longstanding national and institutional problem of the racial income gap.
One hundred and seventy households will be randomly selected to participate. Over a 24-month period, participants will receive $500 a month that they can use to support their families without restrictions. Based on similar initiatives around the country, we anticipate that money will be used to purchase necessities such as food, rent, childcare, healthcare costs and transportation.
ARISE will provide a sense of stability and help low-income families navigate life in a region with a very high cost of living. Data from a similar effort in Stockton, California showed that participants improved their overall health, well-being, they were less stressed and able to meet basic needs. Moreover, nearly 40% of families improved their economic situation and secured better paying jobs. They purchased reliable transportation, obtained credentialing, and took time off work to interview for new opportunities. The City is taking a rigorous approach to assessing the impact of ARISE. We are optimistic that we will see the same results here in Alexandria.
Applications to participate will be available in a few weeks. Visit the DCHS website (https://www.alexandriava.gov/ARISE) for more information.
One of the most promising takeaways from the drop in poverty is that it challenges the notion of why people are poor. The myth of working your way out of poverty with a minimum wage job is not a reality for many low wage workers. It sheds new understanding: poverty is not a personal failure, but a systemic failure that requires a systemic response.
The data from guaranteed income pilots around the country also dispels the myth that poor people make poor decisions. In fact, when low-income people have the freedom and agency to make decisions about spending, they make decisions that advance the health and economic wellbeing of their families. Their lives improve and our overall community improves.
You can get involved! Visit www.volunteeralexandria.org and sign-up to be an ARISE outreach or application volunteer.
As a community, we have a choice about how we collectively move forward. Direct cash assistance programs and tax credits are proven to effectively support families and help people advance on the economic ladder. These investments enable all our neighbors to thrive.
The writer is president and CEO of ACT for Alexandria.