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City Talk: Savannah officials setting poverty reduction goals

Last Sunday, this column looked closely at poverty statistics for the city of Savannah.

I got some interesting responses to that column, so I need to begin today by noting that I wasn’t to lay out some sort of comprehensive poverty reduction plan.

That column did, however, note a couple of strong correlations. The odds of adults 25 and over living in poverty decline dramatically if they have completed high school or if they hold full-time, year-round work.

Poverty is such a complex issue that one could legitimately interpret those correlations in a variety of ways and recommend many possible remedies. Let’s try some different things and see what works.

In that column, I also cited the extremely high poverty rate among Savannah’s children, about four in 10 of whom live in households that fall below the poverty threshold. About two in 10 children in Savannah live in households with incomes of 50 percent or less of the poverty threshold.

Given those daunting numbers, we should be open to solutions that come from anywhere on the political spectrum.

As reported in this newspaper last week by Eric Curl, city of Savannah officials have begun the process of detailing specific goals for poverty reduction and for economic vitality.

The mission is that Savannah “will lead a multi-jurisdictional, integrated, multi-year initiative to lift Savannahnians out of poverty and break the inter-generational cycle of poverty and crime.”

As a numbers guy, I especially appreciate that the city’s strategic plan will detail measurable results. One key goal is that “the poverty rate will be reduced by 1 percent every four years until Savannah’s poverty rate is at or below the state-wide rate.”

So what does that mean?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder, 26.5 percent of Savannah residents are living in poverty. That number is based on data from a five-year period.

By contrast, the poverty rate for Georgians generally is 18.4 percent.

The city’s proposed goal strikes me as aggressive, but even if we meet the benchmarks, it will take 30 years before the Savannah poverty rate matches the state rate.

It is exceedingly unlikely that any of the city’s top elected or appointed officials will still be in power in 2050, which makes it all the more important for poverty reduction to be addressed through systemic changes to local bureaucracies and through a broader cultural shift.

City officials will soon be releasing even more detailed goals for poverty reduction and workforce training. For example, officials will track the percentage of graduates from city-funding workforce training programs who are placed in family-wage jobs.

Changing the economic balance

Also, as Eric reported last week, the city has articulated a goal to have, by 2025, a more balanced economy.

According to the May 2017 estimates from the Georgia Department of Labor, the leisure and hospitality sector accounts for 15.3 percent of payroll jobs in the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties). That sector accounts for just 10.8 percent of payroll jobs statewide.

By contrast, the broad sector of professional and business services, which includes a variety of managerial and administrative positions, accounts for 11.4 percent of Savannah metro area payroll jobs. That sector makes up 15 percent of the payroll jobs across Georgia.

Over time, if the public schools improve and workforce training becomes more robust, we might be able to attract new companies – both large and small – that pay higher wages. With a better trained workforce, existing businesses might be more likely to expand.

At the same time, Savannah’s tourism boom will likely continue, which will almost certainly fuel continued growth in leisure and hospitality jobs, many of which pay relatively low hourly wages.

There has been considerable civic debate about tourism in Savannah, but we need better data and more nuanced discussion.

For example, I know many service industry workers who are living comfortable and fulfilled lives – they’re parents, homeowners, engaged community members.

How can we create more positions like those?

And how do we allow a broader range of Savannahians to benefit from the tourism boom?

In the coming weeks and months, as city officials continue to set specific goals for poverty reduction and economic vitality, I’ll try to dig a little deeper into questions like these.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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