Opinion: When working is not working

Investing in education / Getty Images
Investing in education / Getty Images

How do we address academic success when 54% of our community's children are living in households struggling to make ends meet? Hamilton County Schools seem closer to answering that question, and their answer relies on deep community collaboration and aligned support for kids, educators and one another.

Members of the United Way of Greater Chattanooga's staff and board attended Superintendent Justin Robertson's recent presentation of the Hamilton County Schools' "Opportunity 2030" strategic plan. We were excited to hear a clear, thoughtful and realistic plan for district success. For those of us who have children in HCS schools, this success is personal, and we are eager to get this plan into action.

We were struck that among the plan's five "pillars"-- Every Student Learns, Belongs, is Equipped, is Valued, and Served -- only one explicitly addresses academic achievement. We believe this is not an indication that classroom instruction is now less important than before, but rather that the superintendent's administration recognizes that healthy, thriving kids must be supported across a wider array of circumstances and life experiences.

This is where the United Way and our allies can play a meaningful role. Robertson and his team have come to the same conclusions we have about child well-being, likely based on some of the same data. The United Way uses a more specific and accurate measure of child poverty than the federal government, a measure we refer to as "ALICE" families: Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed. Simply put, adults in these households have jobs but do not earn enough money to afford the modern essentials of housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, a smartphone plan, and taxes -- the basics needed to live and work today.

The data we have seen about financial hardship in Hamilton County should alarm everyone. For instance, 42% of households in Hamilton County in 2018 were earning below the ALICE threshold. This includes more than 35,000 children ages 0-17 in our county -- 54% of our children -- who will go to bed tonight in a household below the ALICE threshold of financial survival. Simply put, just working is not working. In fact, one-third of all ALICE households in Tennessee have two incomes, yet they still struggle!

We urge all Hamilton County residents and elected officials representing our community to support the Opportunity 2030 plan. We also believe the time is now to find creative ways to invest in even younger children as well as their parents and caregivers. This "two-generation" approach is needed to help adults find financial stability today, which is the surest predictor of their children's financial stability tomorrow.

To that end, we look forward to working with our higher education institutions, vocational training centers and local employers to find more economic mobility pathways for adults and students, including full-time jobs, internships, apprenticeships and on-the-job training so that high school graduates can start earning as soon as possible.

Last but by no means least, we hope our peers in philanthropy, community impact and every Chattanoogan who cares about kids will join us in supporting state legislation like Promising Futures, which would provide last-dollar support for high-quality child care to families in need, and Baby Basics, which would alleviate the sales tax burden levied on diapers and other critical supplies needed by infants and toddlers.

As we look to our next 100 years, we believe the HCS Opportunity 2030 plan offers a clear blueprint for how community collaborations can continue. When they do -- and when we work toward strategic policy solutions that help two generations at once work their way up and out of poverty -- the result will be well-adjusted and happy kids, ready to learn and able to thrive.

Abby Studer Garrison is the vice president of community investments at the United Way of Greater Chattanooga.