Since its formation twelve years ago, Step Up Savannah has focused on workforce development, wealth building and financial empowerment, and education and advocacy to engage all sectors of the community to help local families achieve economic mobility and financial stability.
Altruism was a motivating factor, but Step Up’s founders (including City of Savannah, Chatham County, Chamber, SEDA and United Way of Coastal Empire) realized that the poverty endemic to some Savannah neighborhoods contributed to the city’s ongoing problems with crime and delinquency. They understood that dealing with these issues was essential to Savannah’s continued economic growth and stability.
With a poverty rate hovering around a persistent 26%, one out of every four Savannahians lacks the financial resources to pay for basic necessities like housing, food, clothing, and transportation. In some neighborhoods, that rate jumps to 50%. Last year, Step Up Savannah helped 755 people open bank accounts and also helped 105 adults receive job training through the Chatham Apprentice Program.
Jen Singeisen wears many hats in her role as Executive Director of Step Up Savannah including financial mentor, fundraiser, and community organizer. She deals with numbers and statistics on daily basis. But for Singeisen it’s more important to focus on the human faces of poverty-– the single parent with limited resources and no transportation who must find a way to get to work and get their child to daycare; the elderly person trying to pay for both utilities and medication; the young adult who has to care for siblings while their parent is incarcerated; and the elderly couple raising their grandchildren while dealing with their own health and work issues. That focus has made Step Up’s poverty simulations an integral part of the agency’s awareness campaign and, last year, 264 community volunteers were trained through poverty simulations.
“During our simulations you adopt the identity of a low-income individual who may be single or living with a family.” Singeisen said. “For two hours you work together with your “family” experiencing what it’s like to live in poverty for one “month”; needing to pay bills, work, and care for children all which are complicated by lack of transportation and overcoming challenges including crime and eviction. The simulation provides the opportunity to “walk in someone else’s shoes”; and helps someone who has never lived in poverty understand and raise awareness of the challenges and barriers low-income families face to accomplish daily activities.”
An estimated 80% of the children living in Chatham County currently qualify for healthcare coverage through public health insurance programs like PeachCare for Kids and Medicaid. But many parents are either unaware that their kids are eligible or they don't know where to get help to enroll in these popular programs.
Thanks to a free service from “The Campaign for Healthy Kids” and the cooperative efforts of Step Up Savannah, Chatham County Safety Net Planning Council and Curtis V. Cooper Primary Health Care, Inc, this process has been streamlined. This program provides free enrollment assistance for public benefits including Medicaid, PeachCare for Kids. and SNAP- a supplemental nutrition assistance program which provides a stipend to help low income families pay for their groceries each month.
Step Up Savannah and Curtis V. Cooper Primary Health Care, Inc. both provide bilingual enrollment specialists who offer enrollment services two days/week at Savannah’s First Hispanic Baptist Church (1 Gamble Road, Savannah, Ga. 31405) to help Latino parents sign up their U.S. born children for benefits. Families don’t have to be affiliated with the church to receive these services.
The City’s new funding process placed Step Up in competition with other social service organizations. Step Up was established as a convener, to facilitate a collaborative effort of programs and to bring innovative ideas to the City. “I’m all for competition to bring about the best outcomes, however in order to be an effective convener and build trust among organizations Step Up cannot be in competition for funding – this runs counter to the point of being a convener.”
Fighting poverty is a task most everyone agrees is important, but one challenge for Singeisen is overcoming the political and philosophical barriers that make some people reluctant to devote taxpayer dollars to the effort.
“There’s a very good illustration of the difference between equality and equity,” Singeisen said. “Three kids are trying to watch a baseball game from behind a wooden fence. One is tall, one is of medium height, and one is very short. Equality means giving all three kids similar boxes to stand on with the assumption that everyone will benefit equally. This means the first two kids can see just fine but the third kid is still too short to see over the fence. Equity means giving the shortest child an extra box so that all three kids have equal access to view the ballgame. At Step Up, we recognize that some people have different needs to accomplish the same task and our challenge is how do we effectively communicate these needs and help bring about change to meet these needs.”
“To help understand poverty we must provide our leaders, businesses and community perspective in comparing actual dollars vs percentage of income,” Singeisen added. “For example a municipal fee may cost all residents $300 per year, or $25 a month. For leaders and policy makers this may not seem like a burden, but for someone making $10,000 a year, this fee is 3% of their annual income. In contrast for someone making $250,000 a year, a 3% fee of their annual income would be $7500 annually or $625 per month. I don’t believe any policy maker would consider imposing a fee of this magnitude. So it’s not the dollar amount that matters, it’s the percentage of income that makes the conversation relevant to the actual cost and impact to someone’s budget.”
For more information about Step Up Savannah and its programs, please visit www.stepupsavannah.org