In the world of United Way, we talk a lot about building a healthy, strong community. We are about the business of helping residents rigorously vet and support the projects that will improve life for everyone, especially those in need. Effectiveness requires acknowledging the ingredients that actually make a healthy, strong community. What are they and how are we doing?
Particularly helpful is a recently released Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Rankings report. The report looks across the country, county by county, at more than 60 measures of health such as obesity rates, commute time, and access to medical and mental health treatment. By many measures, Essex County is a great place to live.
There are also red flags that suggest we are missing ingredients in our healthy, strong community. I am concerned first and foremost by the trend of children living in poverty. Nationally, the U.S. has seen a 5 percent increase in the number of children living in poverty. In Essex County, 17 percent of children live in families that fall below the poverty line. This rate jumped up across Massachusetts when the recession started and has not yet begun to recede. Additionally, 10 percent of Essex County residents have some food insecurity, and the report suggests a serious housing affordability problem. One in five Essex County residents has a severe housing problem — they just can’t afford decent housing.
There are many efforts to combat these challenges. Some projects I am excited about NSUW funding include:
NSUW funds the Earned Income Tax Credit program at Beverly Bootstraps Community Services. EITC is the federal government’s most effective anti-poverty program. Last year, Beverly Bootstraps, working with North Shore Community Action Programs, assisted 132 Beverly-area residents in filling out their taxes, found 65 who qualified for EITC and returned more than $81,000 to their families. Families overwhelmingly report that they use that money to pay bills, often to pay off heating and utility bills incurred over the winter.