LACONIA — A diverse group of Lakes Region citizens is banding together in an effort to reduce poverty — a reality which directly affects one out of every 12 people in Belknap County.
Alan Robichaud, who is one of the people spearheading this effort, calls poverty "a wicked problem." But he and others involved in the Financial Stability Partnership which aims to reduce poverty in the county by 20 percent by the year 2020, believe the problem, though daunting, is not insoluble. They believe that by bringing as wide an assortment of individuals and groups together to work collectively to address poverty real progress can be achieved.
"We're a partnership, not a program," stresses local attorney Mike Persson, who chairs the effort. The endeavor is working to bring together representatives from the non-profit sector, the business community, local governments, faith communities, and anyone else who wants to become involved in finding ways to address specific issues that impact the poor and make it difficult for them to break out of poverty. "The whole community needs to come together (around the issue)," Persson adds.
Overall, 8.5 percent of people living in Belknap County meet the official definition of being in poverty. That figure is fractionally higher than the state poverty rate which is 8 percent. Here in Belknap County poverty affects more children — 9.9 percent — than the population as a whole.
Interestingly, while Belknap County has a higher rate of poverty than the state, its rate of unemployment is less than the state average — 5.7 percent for the county versus 6.3 percent for the state.
Robichaud and Persson point out that a family of four (two adults with two children) needs to have an income of nearly $40,000 to be financially stable, and that's providing they don't have any childcare expenses. If that family has to pay for childcare, the living wage is almost $15,000 higher. That kind of income requires good-paying, full-time jobs — ones that pay at least $19 to $20 an hour, nearly three times the minimum wage of $7.25.
"We want to put a more solid foundation under these people," Persson says.
Those helping to direct this effort say it is important to have as much of a cross section of the community involved in the endeavor because poverty is not just a problem for the poor. It's an insidious problem.
"Poverty is impacting all of our lives," says Kate Bishop Hamel, consultant for Granite United Way, who plays a key role in the partnership. "It's not just for the non-profits and the government to solve."
Robichaud concurs. "(Poverty) affects our property taxes and our crime rates," he notes.
Hamel hopes this undertaking will first help to educate people about poverty and then get them to think of one thing they can do in their personal or business lives that would help to reduce poverty.
Robichaud, who is community development director for Granite United Way, says the United Way is particularly suited to bring groups and individuals together to address the issue of poverty. But he stresses that people should not think that the partnership is somehow limited to those groups or agencies which have traditionally been associated with the United Way.
"It doesn't matter whether you get United Way funding or not, but we need you at the table," he says.
Persson acknowledges than when the topic of poverty comes us it's easy to become overwhelmed by the numbers. But he sees the partnership as a meaningful endeavor.
"If we don't try different approaches, how do we know that this a problem that can be solved, but that we have given up (trying to solve)," he says.
Robichaud adds, "It doesn't change (just) because we want it to, it takes a lot of hard work."