Initiative aims to solve poverty in Portage County

Kelly Petryszyn

Empower Portage is taking a new approach to solving poverty by teaching people about social class mobility in an effort to help people rise out of poverty. The initiative, named “Bridges Out of Poverty,” is based in part on Dr. Ruby Payne’s “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” and developed by aha! Process, Inc.

There are three parts of the initiative:

• “Bridges Out of Poverty” training is offered to employees and organizations to bring an understanding of poverty in hopes of providing better services to the impoverished.

• “Getting Ahead” workshops are offered for those in poverty to describe how life in the middle class works and the challenges of transitioning.

• The “Circles” campaign, developed by the Move the Mountain Leadership Center, partners middle-class individuals with the graduates of “Getting Ahead” workshops to establish helpful relationships for the future.

Scott Miller, Kent State alumnus and CEO of Move the Mountain, said the initiative redefines the solution to poverty by focusing on relationship building.

“A huge design flaw in our system is that people needed services,” Miller said. “It’s not true. People need relationships.” Miller said the comprehensive three-part initiative allows communities to draw upon people who have more resources to reach out to those who don’t have as many.

Empower Portage began work on the initiative in the spring of 2008, said Cathey DeBord, housing & emergency support services director at Portage County Family and Community Services. Empower Portage is a group of people from public and private sectors of the community that works to combat poverty in Portage County.

Poverty has been on the rise in Portage County. According to American Community Survey estimates from the 2008 Census, 12 percent of Portage County is below the Federal Poverty Threshold, a 2 percent increase from 2007. The FPT ranges from $10, 991 for a single person to $41,624 for a family with nine people or more with eight or more children.

Empower Portage wanted to take a different approach to tackle this long-standing problem.

“The point of the initiative is to look at poverty through the lens of class,” DeBord said. She added that many times people think social services are the answer to poverty, but social services cannot be the only answer because people who only rely on services live on a need-to-need basis, and their situation never improves long term. She said the initiative is designed to be a supplement to social services and a final answer in the equation of solving poverty.

Philip DeVol, co-author of “Bridges Out of Poverty,” said the initiative has the potential to help social services better serve their clients by educating social service workers how to help people out of poverty.

Empower Portage received an $111,000 grant from the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to implement every aspect of that model.

The Corporation for National and Community Service funded two AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America, including Trisha Riley, who works to implement the three aspects of the model and was at the first “Bridges Out of Poverty” training on March 17.

Riley said a diverse group of people from all professions was present, and many thought it was a worthwhile endeavor. She hopes to start the “Getting Ahead” workshops in May and the “Circles” campaign in the summer. She works with a dedicated steering committee comprised mostly of volunteers.

One of the members of this committee is Renee Johnson, an assistant political science professor at Kent State. Johnson got involved with the committee at the invitation of a colleague and regularly does research on state-level policy of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare programs.

“It’s very heartening that groups of citizens on their own are getting together and are worried about these conditions,” she said. “They are sort of trying to find out: ‘What kinds of things do we have the power to do by ourselves?’”

The campaign has been implemented in 22 states across the country. According to 2010 Move the Mountain data, six months after graduating from getting ahead, participants had an 88 percent increase in median income. Also, the amount of public assistance benefits they relied on decreased 30 percent. This saved involved communities about $51,336 for the year in public assistance spending. Also graduates reported that they can rely on more people.

Riley is hoping for similar results in Portage County.

“I would like to see people have jobs that put them on a career track and break the cycle of generational poverty,” she said.

To get involved, contact Empower Portage at 330-297-7027 (ext. 314) or visit

Contact public affairs reporter Kelly Petryszyn at [email protected].