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UGA Program Helps Leaders Understand Poverty Problems

A million Georgians live in poverty, trying to support a family on less than $15,000 a year. In a new University of Georgia educational program, the people they rely on for help trade places with them, at least for one day.

Understanding must come first

"Welcome to the State of Poverty," a UGA Extension Service program, shows what it's like to live in poverty for a month. The program helps sensitize people who work with those in need to the stresses of everyday living.

"One of the biggest obstacles poverty-level families face is that the people who work with them don't understand what they face," said Ann Peisher, an Extension Service associate professor with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Peisher and others began the program in November.

Many programs to help

New welfare reforms have many communities developing programs and policies to help people move from welfare to work. The UGA program is designed to better equip community leaders to address the issues they will face.

"There are lots of definitions for self-sufficiency," Peisher said. "Typically it has an economic definition. But from a family standpoint it's broader. Getting a job isn't a big deal. Keeping a job is. We help people acquire skills to reach a state of well-being so they can keep a job."

Some of the skills they teach are money managing, food and nutrition, getting good child care and finding and keeping good housing.

Obstacles not easily overcome

"The two biggest obstacles these families face in getting and keeping jobs are child care -- finding quality, affordable child care for the shifts they work -- and transportation," Peisher said.

"Having reliable transportation to get to a job on time is an especially big obstacle in rural areas, where they don't have public transportation," she said. "Even in some urban areas, public transportation is unavailable."

Education vital

A lack of basic life skills will keep people from holding onto a job after they get it. But education is perhaps the biggest roadblock.

"Some studies have shown that if women aren't making more than $8 per hour, the chances of their staying employed more than three years are low," Peisher said.

"The biggest obstacle in getting a high-wage job is the lack of education," she said. "So you have a complicated web of obstacles."

Helping the helpers

Helping the people who work in agencies designed to help these families get past the roadblocks is what the UGA training is all about. So far, the program has had good marks.

"We're looking for better understanding of low-income families and their challenges," Peisher said. "We're looking for improved community programming and policy-making for poverty families."

Of the people who have taken part in the program so far, she said, more than 90 percent say they understand the low-income obstacles better.

"In early feedback, 65 percent said they see their jobs and the people they work with differently," Peisher said. "More than 70 percent felt more able to develop plans for community action. And more than 60 percent had ideas they wanted to discuss with others about community action."

The simulation isn't intended to actually develop those programs and policies. It's designed to help people feel more able to make those plans. It is a precursor to having better programs and policies for low-income families.

To find out more about the training, contact the county Extension Service office. Or call (706) 542-1671.

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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