Black poverty at 40% in Duluth

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As much as 40 percent of the Black population in Duluth and one third of the total Duluth population are struggling to pay for their basic needs: food, clothes and shelter. Homelessness, hunger, and lack of health care are big issues for the city that sits on the big lake.

Adding to that, there has reportedly been a 50 percent decline in new jobs in Duluth during the past three years. But just because you’re unemployed or underemployed in Duluth doesn’t mean all hope is lost.

Enter “Duluth at Work,” an organization made up of multiple city and civic groups that is paying close attention to people living in poverty. The organization is not only helping folks find jobs, it’s also making sure businesses keep growing so there is a platform to support job growth.

Duluth at Work’s purpose is to increase incomes of the unemployed or underemployed by 25 percent over the course of three years. That means if you make $10 an hour, you will make $12.50 at the end of three years. If you work 40 hours a week, that’s an extra $100 by Friday — a big bonus for people who are struggling to find enough money to pay for groceries.

“There’s a real opportunity for change during those three years,” said Emily Larson, the Duluth at Work coordinator.

During the three years, participants work with a case manager to help them increase their wages. Case management workers provide peer support and mentoring, plus opportunities for employment training to help applicants reach their goals.

“During that time, people can go back to school to further their education. They can really think about what they want to do and what direction they want to go,” noted Larson.

Duluth at Work’s poverty reduction program is based on a similar model used in Portland, Oregon. The model encompasses practices that will help in the fight for poverty reduction and includes such items as offering mentoring/coaching, involving employers early in the program, and business coaching.

These practices have proven to be successful in Portland. The same practices are being vigilantly watched in Duluth, and city leaders are keeping their fingers crossed for similar results.

Community Action of Duluth is a public agency that provides assistance for low-income people in Duluth. The agency also is represented on Duluth at Work’s advisory committee.

According to Angie Miller, executive director of Community Action Duluth, the federal income poverty levels are defined as follows: for a household of one, $10,830; a household of two, $14,570; and a household of three, $18,310.

“For most of our programs, we define poverty by doubling those income guidelines, which is 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline, to determine eligibility,” stated Miller. “The federal poverty guidelines are based on an outdated way of calculating how much money it takes to live, which is why we have doubled these guidelines for our programs.”

Miller reports that in Duluth (according to the 2000 Census and the report “Race Matters” complied by the Duluth Anti-Racism Coalition) 40 percent of African Americans and 43 percent of Native Americans are living in poverty, compared to four percent of Whites living below the poverty level.

Duluth at Work also is working on the employment side of the coin by encouraging the growth of small businesses in the community so they can have the capabilities to hire program participants. Much like the income increase goal of 25 percent in employee wages, Duluth at Work promises to offer mentoring and peer support to lead to an overall business growth of 25 percent in three years.

“Duluth has a disproportionately large number of small businesses,” noted Larson. “And given the state of our economy right now, job expansion is unlikely. Currently, we’re focusing on helping these businesses keep their doors open.”

Duluth at Work recently celebrated its one-year anniversary of the launch of the program. Blacks make up 30 percent of the people being served by the program.

Despite the dismal economy, Duluth at Work reports success. However, Larson stresses that they’d like to see more employers posting help-wanted signs.

“Duluth at Work is working, but there is still an opportunity to do more.”

For more information on the program, contact Emily Larson, Duluth at Work coordinator, at 218-355-8070 or emilylarson@duluthmn.com.
Felicia Shultz welcomes reader responses to fshultz@spokesman-recorder.com.

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