Non-profits forced to do more with less as poverty rates hit all-time high

As the holidays quickly approach, many families throughout the U.S. are thinking less about what will go under the tree and more about keeping a roof over their head, employment and if there will be food to eat.

The latest census data reported that nearly 1 in 2 Americans now find themselves living in poverty or low-income.  The U.S. Census Bureau also reported some 49 million individuals now find themselves living in poverty.

Much like the national landscape, Utah has more families living in poverty than ever before. In 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau reported more than 316,000 Utah residents lived in poverty, an increase of 19.8 percent from the previous year. Today, more than 359,000 Utah residents live in poverty and the numbers continue to rise each day.

As the poverty rates continue to rise, so does the need for help. Non-profits and other organizations that serve the low-income population are seeing a record number of people seeking assistance, while donations become increasingly more difficult to come by.

In a recent study done by the Nonprofit Research Collaborative, researchers found 33 percent of non-profits have seen a reduction in donation income this past year, while 24 percent have stayed the same. The report also indicated that larger organizations were more likely to see growth than smaller ones.

Community Action Services and Food Bank (CASFB) in Provo serves as the primary food bank for Utah, Wasatch and Summit counties.  In addition to food assistance, the agency also provides several services to help low-income families meet their basic needs.                                                            

Since the downturn of the economy, the organization has seen the number of clients more than double, while funding sources and donations have decreased.

“Last month we served more than 2,300 households through our pantry in Provo,” explained   Myla Dutton, CASFB executive director. “It’s not just families that are struggling. Agencies such as ours, are trying to help more people with less resources.”

As resources become increasingly scarce, smaller organizations are looking for new ways to make the best use of what they have available. As a result, organizations are modifying or creating new programs that focus on meeting a basic need, while also providing long-term solutions to the issue of poverty. 

At CASFB a new program, known as the Circles Initiative, has been adopted to help more individuals help themselves.  The program, which is the first of its kind in the state of Utah, partners community volunteers with low-income individuals to help provide emotional support in addition to basic services. 

“Through our research, we have found that many people living in poverty lack many basic resources. Money isn’t the only one,” said Jane Carlile, coordinator of the Circles Initiative. “Emotional support plays a major role in one’s ability to overcome the barriers to poverty and Circles helps address this need.”

With a focus on solving the barriers to poverty, Circles helps families find ways to improve their situation for good. Early results indicate for every dollar invested into the program, $2 in welfare and food stamp subsidies were returned to the government and $4 to the community as new earned income.

 “These are the types of results our community needs to see,” Carlile said. “So many programs are focused on the symptoms of poverty such as homelessness and hunger, but there isn’t a real focus on the root causes of poverty and so the problem continues. Circles changes that.”

Volunteers in the program meet with participants on a weekly basis to understand and solve difficult challenges that prevent the participants from overcoming their barrier to poverty such as childcare, transportation, education and employment.

As the economy continues to struggle, many organizations will be faced with the challenge of being able to help the record number of individuals living in poverty that will be seeking assistance in the near future.

“Until the economy improves and donations start to increase, non-profits will need to implement new strategies or the poverty rate and the number of clients will continue to rise,” said Dutton. “As difficult as things are right now, this provides an opportunity for organizations to improve. We’re doing our best to take it full stride.”

To learn more about the Circles Initiative, or to make a donation, visit CommunityActionUC.org.

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