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Opinion: Without action, poverty hole could sink city

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There is a hole in our boat.

The boat is our city. More specifically, it’s the people who make up the fabric of our community.

The hole is poverty. More specifically, it’s the working poor and situational homeless in the northwest quadrant of our city.

That reality might leave some saying, “There’s a hole in your end of the boat.”

This is the message and the warning of Springfield City Manager Greg Burris. And I think he’s right to deliver it. The reality is we’ve likely only observed the other end of the boat for too long, and that’s why poverty is as deep as it is.

I mean, one in four homes in the city function below the federal poverty line? It’s been widely reported recently, but we must realize how we got here. And we can’t be OK with it – or it will continue to spread. It won’t be long before the hole in the other end of the boat sinks our city.

Burris has stepped forward to make sure that doesn’t happen. In his latest efforts, you might see him addressing a church congregation. I did. And I’m glad. We need to be confronted with this reality. The faith community is the place for the city to bring a need and ask for help. According to Burris, this is the first time the city has done that on a large scale.

So there I was on a recent Sunday morning hearing Burris talk through a data-driven presentation. One after another, the heat maps consistently drew our eyes to the red zones in the west and northwest part of Springfield. The statistics reveal key economic and societal concerns:

• The highest property and violent crime rates? West Central.

• The lowest median incomes – $12,350-$23,320 from 2009 to 2013 – are in pockets in the west and the north.

• Fire calls are most frequently in the northwest.

• Though we have a healthy 4.2 percent unemployment rate citywide, unemployment in the northwest is at an unacceptable 15-23 percent.

• Education rates? Only 14-21 percent in the northwest have an associate degree or higher, the lowest rates in the city.

• In this quadrant, less than 43 percent of homes are occupied by owners, the city’s lowest rate.

• The teen birth rate and low birth-weight babies? Check and check. In both categories over 11 of every 100 births in the northwest are to teen mothers or with low weights.

• Three out of every four new mothers are on Medicaid in the quadrant.

• Available children’s play spaces are at a minimum.

• There also are hotspots for foreclosures, city service requests, free and reduced lunches, and low voter turnout.

I must remind myself, the numbers aren’t just for crunching. They represent real people.

One of the city manager’s slides puts it point blank: “If you have a car, a garage door opener and Netflix, you probably aren’t exposed to much poverty.”

Hmm. Hard to argue with that.

Not sitting on our hands, community leaders are taking quality steps toward solutions. The current attack has four prongs, and each represents hours upon hours of civilian work and plenty of opportunities to assist in the other side of the boat: The Northwest Project and its potential for a $1.3 million investment; the Zone Blitz community listening events with 156 organizational and business partners signed on; the formal Impacting Poverty Commission and its call to action (check; and Convoy of Hope’s first community event in its hometown, scheduled May 7 at the Ozarks Empire Fairgrounds.

During Missouri State University’s recent Public Affairs Conference, social scientist Robert Putnam affirmed these efforts. “I’ve spoken at several hundred places about these issues,” said Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University. “I don’t think there is a place in America that has a more sophisticated understanding of the gap between poor kids and rich kids than in Springfield.”

Now that we know, it’s time for action.

I know I’ve had to be purposeful in any personal exposure to poverty. It’s few and too far between, but I remember taking my kids to make sandwiches on Commercial Street a few years ago and, more recently, the spontaneous sandwich stand at the downtown bus station the afternoon of Christmas Eve.

The thing that bugs me is I never know if those efforts are solving any root problems.

I may have filled a few bellies, but I’m just one man, leading one family.

What our city manager is talking about is a city of people who care enough about their crosstown neighbors to do something for them. This is not a Band-Aid. There is a groundswell behind this thing.

I’m glad he has help.

Springfield Business Journal Editorial Director Eric Olson can be reached at


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