In 2012, several community leaders met to discuss Springfield’s rising poverty levels and decreasing postsecondary educational attainment among adults. Some applied for a grant with Lumina Foundation — an organization with a national goal to increase postsecondary educational attainment (such as a certificate or degree) to 60 percent by 2025.
Springfield received the grant.
The grant required a focus on programs for 11th and 12th grade students from African Americans/Blacks, Hispanics/Latinx and rural area populations and to publicly share disaggregated data. The focus was educational attainment access and inclusion by reducing barriers in practices, policies, and systems. Springfield achieved expected goals and outcomes.
After writing a news article to share information about the grant’s success, I received several negative comments even though it was based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau. After the backlash, we quietly continued community work to address systemic issues. Springfield Public Schools and area higher education institutions supported and shared data through creation of strategic plans. They made commitments to review and adjust policies, processes, and procedures that contribute to successes seen today in our community. It seemed logical for leaders to determine issues impacting access to higher education and completion.
Goal set to reduce poverty rate by 2025
In 2013, private, public, and social sector community members established the Impacting Poverty Commission to research the cause and effect of poverty in the Springfield area. The Commission developed recommendations for poverty reduction and used U.S. Census data to establish a goal to reduce the poverty level by five percentage points by 2025.
At the outset, the poverty rate for Springfield was 25.7 percent, according to the American Community Survey 5-year Assessment.
In 2015, the Commission produced a community action report. The community hired the Prosper Springfield Director for oversight of the action plan and reported annual progress updates until impacts from COVID-19 prevented regular updates.
Almost 90 percent of the recommendations were completed. Last year, U.S. Census published 2020 data — Springfield’s poverty level was 21.7% (2016 – 2020).
One could say Springfield is one percentage point from achieving the goal!
Disaggregating data with intersectionality refines the needs of the community. Several community leaders decided to disaggregate data to see where the city was making great progress and where there might be opportunities for improvement.
Disaggregated U.S. Census data by racial/ethnic population and intersectionality became an eye-opener for many community leaders. For example, we learned the poverty level for some population groups reduced by double digits over a four-year period and some increased by double digits. We learned opportunities for improvement were needed for certain intersecting groups, such as individuals with a disability, individuals in the LGBTQ+ communities, people of color, individuals in rural areas, veterans, women, and other intersections.
Historical research and analysis were needed to determine what we can do to make changes and create better ecosystems.
Understanding inequities is basis for change
The community needed to understand how inequities came about, such as affordability, accessibility, transportation needs, and broadband access.
We know there were and still are some historical laws created to impact certain populations as well as systemic issues buried into policies and practices. For example, some job descriptions have not been changed in years!
Different questions were forming and being asked by several decisionmakers to challenge policies and practices to make them more inclusive. Another example, the Springfield Police Department changed a hiring policy to allow appropriate visible tattoos.
Springfield Public Schools enhanced a program to contact students who stopped attending high school to help them obtain a high school diploma or high school equivalency certificate.
Higher education institutions are helping individuals who stopped attending college complete certification programs and degrees. All area higher education institutions have programs to support the needs of individuals. Some programs are specific to the needs of veterans, and other programs are virtual for greater access in rural areas with other programs taught in different languages.
These changes in policies and practices were determined and measured with the use of disaggregated data.
So, why do we try to label this work in a negative manner or give it a label that is based on a perspective? Is it not important to understand why inequities thrive in certain institutions and are impacted by particular individuals?
How else would we know what to fix in systems to make them universally accessible?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s website, their mission is to serve as the nation’s leading provider of quality data about its people and economy. The Bureau operates under the authority of Title 13 and Title 26 of the U.S. Code. The goal is to provide the best mix of timeliness, relevancy, quality, and cost for the data they collect as well as services they provide. They provide current facts and figures about America’s people, places, and economy. Many cities, counties, regions, and states use the Bureau’s data to determine where to best use resources, address issues and measure improvements
Do we, as a community, ensure that more resources are available for staff development for leaders and staff to close the gaps of double-digit poverty levels and educational attainment?
Do we provide more support for families and communities to become empowered for self-sufficiency and sustainability?
Do we ensure that hiring patterns are more reflective of Springfield’s populations and intersecting groups with similar lived experiences?
Springfield continues to grow and needs to continue to demonstrate the importance of using data to make decisions that impact the various groups that call Springfield home.
Let’s not focus on particular words that can divide our thinking, but rather on words that can help us see what we can agree upon to move forward. This means we may have to understand history to challenge historical practices, so we do not repeat what divides us.
Intersectional thinking, understanding national trends and using data to determine gaps are clear ways to represent our community and provide resources where needed the most.
Together we can move towards restoration of the integral worth of each individual human in our city.
Editor’s note: With this column, we welcome Francine Pratt to our group of regular contributors. She plans to write once each month on local issues and particularly through an equity lens.