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Congressman Adrian Smith (R-NE) convened his first hearing as chairman of the Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee today on the Geography of Poverty. Tammy Slater of Doniphan, CEO of Goodwill Industries of Greater Nebraska, testified at the hearing as an invited witness.
Congressman Smith’s opening statement:
It’s great to work with all of the Members of this Subcommittee so we can help more Americans escape poverty and move up the economic ladder. As we all know, the Ways and Means Committee plays an important role in designing policies to improve the lives of Americans across this country.
Together, members of this Committee work to improve our nation’s healthcare system, modernize our tax code to make American businesses more competitive, improve trade so U.S. companies can sell goods abroad, and – in the Human Resources Subcommittee – help more families access opportunities to move up the economic ladder. This task is more important than ever.
While the total number of individuals living in poverty has fallen from its recent peak in 2010, poverty rates—and even more troubling, child poverty rates—remain much higher than they were prior to the recession. In addition, a larger share of working-age adults are in poverty than ever before, as fewer men and women today are employed than in the past.
Today’s hearing represents our first step to address this issue in the 115th Congress. Before we can identify ways to foster greater opportunities, we have to first understand what the challenges look like across the country. That’s why the focus of our hearing today is on the geography of poverty. This felt like the right place to start as I thought about the challenges in my own district, where many locations aren’t just rural but also remote, and that of the Ranking Member’s as potential bookends of the same story.
People often think of poverty only as they see it in cities, not realizing poverty today is more common than ever in suburban and rural areas. People also underestimate poverty in rural and remote areas, not knowing rates of poverty in these areas have for decades been higher than in urban areas. Our instinct might be to think rural Nebraska and urban Chicago are so vastly different they have nothing in common. But what we are charged to do in this Subcommittee is to find ways for individuals and families to succeed, and those challenges are universal, even if they require different solutions.
Fortunately, the members of this Subcommittee bring substantial expertise to bear, as together we represent a wide range of constituencies from virtually all four corners of this country. This diversity will be an asset as we explore ways to reduce poverty, as I know what works in one area may not always be what works in another. It’s important we realize and respect the differences between the constituencies we represent, as too often Congress proposes national, one-size-fits-all solutions when local flexibility is truly what’s needed.
Clearly, the centerpiece of any poverty fighting strategy must be employment. We must make sure federal policies support and reward work, and make sure employment pays for those struggling to get ahead. It’s also important we get incentives right so everyone benefits when someone moves from welfare to work – from the state agency running the program to the business owner hiring the employee to the individual seeking to improve his or her own life.
We should also avoid the tendency to focus solely on inputs like dollars spent or people served, and instead ensure we focus on outcomes. By prioritizing results, we can empower local communities with the flexibility they need to design solutions which have real impact on improving the lives of families in their community.
I look forward to hearing from our expert panel of witnesses today, and I know their insights will lay the groundwork for our efforts to help more Americans find jobs, escape poverty, and move up the economic ladder.
Tammy Slater’s testimony:
Good Morning. Thank you for the invitation to testify on the challenges and opportunities of serving people in rural Nebraska impacted by poverty. My name is Tammy Slater, and I live in Doniphan, Nebraska, a town of 850-plus people. I am the Chief Executive Officer of Goodwill Industries of Greater Nebraska, located in the third largest city of Nebraska, Grand Island, with a population of 50,000. We are one of 157 autonomous Goodwill organizations in the United States and one of four Goodwills serving Nebraska.
Last year, all Goodwills collectively connected 312,000 people with employment in the United States and Canada. Each local Goodwill organization has an assigned territory and provides services within our geographic area in response to our communities’ needs. Goodwill Industries of Greater Nebraska’s services promote independence and access to the community, help people become successfully employed, support goals of wellness and recovery, facilitate group classes to teach responsible behavior, and provide safe and affordable housing.
Our Goodwill mission is to serve Nebraskans experiencing intellectual or developmental disabilities, severe and persistent mental illnesses, substance use disorders, behavioral health challenges, or acquired brain injuries. Each year, we serve more than 1,600 people in central and western Nebraska with an array of services. We help people earn jobs and advance their careers with specialized services to meet their needs.
Our service territory, as Chairman Smith referenced, includes 55 counties and is about 54,000 square miles. Of the counties we serve, 30 percent have a population of 3,000 or fewer.
The challenges of poverty, as we all know – lack of stable housing, adequate nutrition, effective healthcare, reliable transportation, quality childcare, appropriate education and job training – are common to both rural and urban areas. How we respond to these challenges in rural areas may be different because we do have sparse population, limited local resources, and scarce employment opportunities.
Education and job opportunities are scarce for people in rural Nebraska, which is a major roadblock to lifting people out of poverty. In 2015, rural employment was still below pre-recession rates, and earnings are generally lower in rural areas than those in urban areas.
Many of the individuals we serve require comprehensive services, so partnerships with state and local agencies are important to address the complex needs of people living in rural Nebraska. Community partners such as public schools, United Way, area churches, and local Salvation Army posts help us build a support network. Government partners in Health and Human Services, Corrections, Vocational Rehabilitation, and Social Security, among others, help people living in rural communities get and keep their lives on track.
Though partnerships are crucial to success, it is tougher in rural areas because there are fewer community organizations, and we struggle to continue services due to the long distances between communities, which are expensive to maintain. We at Goodwill are grateful for our social enterprise model that creates jobs and helps fund services.
Our team members work to understand our neighbors in the communities we serve and how we can equip them to overcome poverty. One of those neighbors is Peter. When Peter was referred from Nebraska Vocational Rehabilitation to Goodwill, he was unemployed, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, adjustment disorder with anxiety and depression, and narcissistic personality disorder, and receiving Social Security. Peter was also on probation for a felony, and his employment retention was beyond poor.
Peter was able to access an array of services from our Goodwill including comprehensive benefits planning, behavioral health day services, and our behavioral health employment program. Together with Peter, the team working to support him, including Goodwill staff, the local probation office, his counselor at Nebraska VR, and his family members, he’s had a great result. He’s been employed for over one year and continues to work with our Behavioral Health and Benefits Planning.
Peter is just one example of the complexity of those we serve every day. I thank you for this opportunity to share our experience. We appreciate the Subcommittee’s interest in hearing from the field and are very happy to serve as a resource. Thank you.
For more information on today’s hearing, including a full list of witnesses, click here.