A Caring Citizen Sparks a Movement


In America one-fifth of our children live in poverty. In Indianapolis more than a third of our children don’t have enough to eat. How can this happen in our land of “too much everything”?

Tackling the issue of poverty is like trying to get your arms around an octopus. Generations of poverty amass and the end result is a broken culture that can’t see its way out.

I became involved in one of the problems experienced by low-income people when I mentored two brothers who were 8 and 9 years old when I met them at a school where I had signed up to be a once-a-week tutor. As our friendship developed, I also met their mother, who was struggling to own and operate a beauty shop.

When it became apparent that they spent their free time after school and on Saturdays in her shop, I volunteered to take them one Saturday a month for an adventure. I would pick them up at the shop and we would spend the day visiting museums, the zoo, parks, and anyplace that offered an enrichment experience.

Over a midday meal, we would share stories about our lives and our families. They would tell me about their next move (seven or eight over four years) and the new school they would attend. Despite their acceptance of their transient lives, there was also an undercurrent of deep disappointment. The older boy was a good athlete but was never in a school long enough to be on a team. The younger boy loved learning Spanish at a school that they attended for three months. They were bright and personable and had learned how to get along with what they had been dealt.

When our times together ceased due to my health, I began to think about how their mobility impacted their lives; they were simply victims of the larger issue of single moms with low incomes. Thousands of children experience this insecurity and all of the other problems that are a result of poverty. Could a solution be found?

I took this question to Jay Hein, President of Sagamore Institute, and suggested that Sagamore might want to conduct research about why low-income single moms keep moving. He was excited about the possibility of research that might provide insight into poverty. He assigned a senior research fellow, Dr. JoAnna Mitchell-Brown, to design and supervise the project.

Over several months, twenty-four low-income single moms, several teachers and some principals were interviewed. She also used research from other sources to supplement demographics and similar research in other cities. Support from four Indianapolis Public Schools was essential. The final report revealed significant and surprising results.

Only 8% of the moms had less than a high school degree, while 38% had some college and 33% had an associate or bachelor’s degree. Employment information reflected the low level of income, with 29% employed for wages and working 40 or more hours a week. Incomes were less than $35,000, with 50% having incomes of $20,000 to $35,000, and 33% having incomes of less than $20,000.

They relied on government subsidies to sustain their families. Home ownership is not within their financial reach.

They are aware of the emotional impact of mobility on their children but fear giving up the subsidies if they advance to an income above the poverty level.

As we studied the research results we realized that we needed to provide this information to community leaders in an effort to find solutions.

We hosted a symposium in October during which Dr. Brown discussed her research, and panelists offered their observations and concern for the problem. Solutions also were discussed by the panelists and those in attendance, who totaled 54 representing agencies, organizations, universities, government and potential funders.

The symposium also included videos of three moms who were interviewed for the research. The moms explained their situations and how their mobility affected their children.

Some of the research partners provided representatives for a panel discussion. The panelists included Jim Morris, Executive Director of Habitat For Humanity Greater Indianapolis; Alicia J. Collins, Manager of Community Collaborations at Central Indiana Community Foundation; Leigh Riley Evans, Executive Director of Mapleton-Fall Creek Development Corporation (the geographical area of our research); and Lisa Brenner, Student Services Officer at Indianapolis Public Schools.

A panel discussion dedicated to solutions was led by Jay Hein. The panel members included Dr. David Hampton, Indianapolis Deputy Mayor of Neighborhoods; Dr. Brandon Cosby, Executive Director of Flanner House; Allison Luthe, Executive Director of Martin Luther King Community Center; Maria Santiago, Executive Director of Chosen Ministries; and Rachel Halleck, Director of the Early Resource Connections Center at Ivy Tech Community College.

The lively discussion made it apparent that solutions are needed for a poverty situation that is getting worse.

Everyone in attendance was given an opportunity to be a part of finding solutions by completing a questionnaire at the end of the meeting. We identified eight areas that our research had shown need for support:

  •  Housing/Shelter
  •  Mentorship/Personal and Professional Development
  •  Food/Hunger
  •  Workforce and Career Development
  •  Health: Social Well Being/Mental Health
  •  Education
  •  Transportation
  •  Financial Stability

Of the 54 in attendance, 35 indicated their desire to continue with the project.

We plan to convene a meeting of three or four people who are vital to moving forward. We are encouraged by the enthusiasm and look forward to facilitating a structure that will produce solutions.

Each of us has a responsibility to intervene and to look for solutions to break the cycle of poverty.

If you are asked to help, say “Yes” and become involved in one of the most critical issues facing our country. If you wish to participate in our “Bridge” Program to look for solutions, let me know, l.burkhart@sbcglobal.net.

We welcome your ideas, because as we say in our Pledge of Allegiance, we are “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.

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