Economics 101

Students Make a Surprising Discovery about Small-Town Poverty Alleviation

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Ottawa, KS is a nice place to live.

It has friendly people, a charming downtown, and access to big city amenities, since the Kansas City suburbs are only about 25 miles away.

12,500 people live in Ottawa, including the 670 students attending Ottawa University, where I teach economics.

Poverty is still present in our pleasant little town.

  • In Ottawa, the 2012 median income was $42,000, compared to $50,000 statewide.
  • In 2013, the child poverty rate was 31.6 percent, compared to 18.3 percent for all of Kansas.
  • The disability rate is 36.4 percent for poor males and 33.7 percent for poor females, compared to 12.6 percent and 17 percent statewide, respectivley.

I think the community does a nice job with relief efforts and is concerned with poverty overall.

I want my students to share that concern.

Measuring Relief vs. Opportunity

To that end, I’ve been working with IFWE to run a campus program at Ottawa U. Last fall I hosted a half-day student discussion centered around For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty.

We went to a local restaurant for the event’s closing conversation, and we started discussing local poverty issues over mouthfuls of dinner.

I asked whether the students thought measuring relief efforts versus opportunity efforts would be helpful to the community.

By relief efforts I mean short-term aid and relief, and by opportunity efforts I mean efforts addressing poverty alleviation in the long-term.

During the time in college so far, most of my students had experience with various relief efforts for the poor. Based on their experience, they suspected almost all of Ottawa’s efforts were relief efforts.

The following spring our campus program included a research project that had students gathering data from local churches and non-profits. The objective was to create an index, a Community Opportunity Ratio (COR), for all of Ottawa measuring the relief and opportunity efforts discussed in the fall.

There are 68 registered non-profits in Ottawa, some of which include the 30 churches we reached out to. We narrowed down this list of 68 to ones that had, in part, a mission to serve the poor. Our final survey participants included 13 churches and 18 non-church organizations.

So, How Did Ottawa Do?

We found an overlapping mix of efforts addressing the needs of the poor.

For example, many churches gave money and food to Hope House, a local non-church food shelf. This made it challenging to quantify objectively the levels of relief and opportunity efforts.

We also found that most organizations have no direct program for opportunity efforts. Of the 31 organizations evaluated, only 11 were determined to have some degree of opportunity programs.

The average of all 31 organizations engaged in poverty reduction gave only 8.69 percent of their efforts through programs to opportunity. This is the estimated COR for Ottawa.

  • Most of this 8.69 percent is coming through non-church organizations. Nine of the 18 non-church organizations surveyed had a COR of 13.86 percent.
  • Churches had a COR of just 1.53 percent. Only 2 of the 13 churches surveyed had non-zero opportunity efforts.

Care must be taken when interpreting the COR from this project, since it is not weighted by the number of people served. Our data was limited because the participants rarely keep track of the number of recipients. It may be better to think about the marginal person in need.

Take someone who recently lost his job. As he seeks help in Ottawa, he will find that only one organization addresses poverty through a majority of opportunity efforts, and that 64.5 percent of the organizations that want to help have relief efforts only.

This one organization is Circles of Franklin County. Circles focuses on developing long-term skills for people to pull themselves out of poverty. The program started in the spring of 2015. It is already struggling to build momentum.

Circles has graduated its first two people and currently has two more people in the program attending regularly. The Circles representative we interviewed suggested this is not sustainable for the resources devoted to the program.

What Can We Do Moving Forward?

Bear in mind it could be optimal to have only one organization handling opportunity efforts. This is a market where cooperation among organizations is common. While there may be some competition for donations among causes, the supply of relief and opportunity efforts tends to be segmented into various organizations. Transparency among groups should aid in healthy cooperation to best provide help to those in poverty.

The experience was valuable to the students as a way to see how poverty is addressed by local organizations where they live. Opportunity efforts are too low in Ottawa, a city with a long history of the child poverty rate being higher than the state average.

We recommend that communication among community stakeholders begins to include more programs like Circles. Discussions need to take place around complementing existing relief efforts with opportunity efforts.

The local director of the United Way found this research enlightening and expressed interest in working with new grant opportunities for member organizations that begin to structure opportunity efforts into their overall plans.

In the end, since For the Least of These offers a biblical answer to poverty, the data shows that local churches have an opportunity to make a real difference by increasing their own opportunity efforts.

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  • Chuck Bentley

    Good work Russ. I would like to learn more about your work in economics.

    • Russ McCullough

      Thanks Chuck! Send me an email russ.mccullough@ottawa.edu and I will be happy to send you the report I did on the findings. It has details on the methodology and data.

  • Ron Newlin

    As a volunteer for both Habitat for Humanity and a local food pantry, I definitely understand the distinction between short-term relief, and opportunity; and I think we need both. I’m just curious — this particular blog post doesn’t explain why the emphasis/preference for opportunity programs is biblical.

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