Growing up in Kent County is not as solidly middle-class as some believe, which has a profound impact on the region’s economic prosperity.
The county is a far different experience for people depending on race, where they live and economic conditions concludes a study spearheaded by the Kent County Family and Children’s Coordinating Council and its 21-member steering committee.
“We find ourselves at a crossroads in improving our county,” Lynne Ferrell said to a consortium of community leaders Tuesday at Grand Valley State University’s Eberhard Center. Ferrell is program officer of the Frey Foundation and co-chaired the KCFCCC steering committee with Fred Keller, chairman and CEO of Cascade Engineering. “We still are facing these persistent challenges and we feel we need a new way to press forward.”
The steering committee concluded differences in socio-economic conditions strain government resources as low-income residents utilize more social services while generating smaller tax revenues than wealthier residents.
Over the past four months, KCFCCC’s steering committee comprised of county leaders who represent a cross section of the community, from business and philanthropy to government and nonprofit agencies, have linked arms to begin improving the well-being of children and families in the county by issuing a “vision” supported by five goals it believes helps determine a successful life. These are entrenched problems that have no short-term answers, but the focus should be on:
• Early childhood. Children begin kindergarten ready to succeed.
•K-12 academic success. Students graduate from high school who are college and career ready.
• Post-secondary completion. Students complete a post-secondary credential prepared for the 21st century economy.
• Career success. Young adults achieve meaningful careers and are engaged in the community.
• Home and family stability. Families should be supported to ensure children grow up in stable and loving households that enable them to succeed in and out of school.
How does the steering committee suggest moving the needle to a more successful life? It needs to start by making a “collective impact,” which simply means employing strategies used by a cross-section of organizations that join together for a common goal for resolving deep social problems, said John Kanin, managing director of FSG, a nonprofit consulting firm specializing in strategy, evaluation and research.
Communities around the country are using collaborative approaches to improve the conditions of children and their families, according to Kanin. Kent County’s collective impact approach will incorporate lessons learned from locally successful efforts.
To do otherwise means lower tax revenues, which in turn limits community-based services for all of the county’s residents, forcing some businesses to look outside the county for skilled workers, he said.
But turning this racial and economic disparity around cannot be accomplished by a single individual or organization.
The KCFCCC’s executive summary paints a picture of Kent County that is stuck in an economic, racial and poverty rut.
Overall, circumstances for children and families have not improved significantly in recent years, and substantial disparities persist across Kent County based on socio-economic status, ethnic background and the geographic area in the county in which people live, the report said.
“Complex problems are like raising a child,” said Kanin. “There are no right recipes or protocols. Experience helps, but it does not guarantee success.”
He said one avenue KCFCCC will steer clear of in the years ahead as it works to formulate strategies and solutions is to avoid an isolated approach where government, corporations, foundations and nonprofits work to solve the same problems, but not together.
To achieve “collective impact,” KCFCCC will work toward a common agenda, agree on how success will be measured, mutually reinforce its goals, encourage continuous commitment and formulate a backbone organization to keep everyone on track.
The link between children’s and families’ well-being and the community’s economic prospects cannot be underestimated, according to the summary.
Many work-force experts predict the need for post-secondary educated workers will increase greatly in the near future. For example, estimates of the percentage of the work force that needs at least an associate’s degree range from 42 percent to 63 percent.
An increasingly sophisticated economy demands that children achieve the higher levels of education to compete not just on a regional or national scale, but on a global scale.
The data, the steering committee’s summary concludes, show that Kent County is “highly segregated” by geography in terms of race and income, highlighting intergenerational and systemic challenges to accessing high-quality education, securing promising employment and accumulating wealth.
For example, from 2006 to 2010, the unemployment rate ranged from 4.6 percent in Ada Township and Grand Rapids Township to 19.8 percent in Cedar Springs. During the same time, the unemployment rate for Hispanics was nearly double that of whites, and the rate for blacks was more than twice that of whites.
The study concludes that the challenge does not exist in pockets of the county and is not confined to “social issues.” Rather, there exists a strong economic imperative for reducing gaps in Kent County and ensuring that all children and families have a chance to succeed.
“We really need this to be a true public-private partnership if we are truly going to find ways to solve our most complex social problems,” said Sandi Frosh Parish, chair of the Kent County Board of Commissioners.