Want to understand the poverty problem in North Idaho?
Take a right on Coeur d’Alene Lake Drive, suggested Mark Haberman.
There, on a short strip of busy road, visitors can find the region’s extremes of wealth and want.
On one side, there’s the Monte Vista motel, where homeless people pay a few dollars for a 10-by-10 patch of ground to pitch a tent for the night.
On the other side, there’s the entrance to the Coeur d’Alene Resort Golf Course, where well-heeled people pay $180 for 18 holes of golf.
“There’s poverty within 200 yards of this world-renowned golf course,” said Haberman, a program manager for the Community Action Agency in Coeur d’Alene. “They’re within the shadow of each other.”
For the most part, the two worlds exist independently, not by choice, but by circumstance, he said. Bringing those worlds together, with a shared goal of eliminating poverty, is the goal of a new initiative launched by the agency this week.
More than 100 community leaders gathered in three cities – Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint and Lewiston – to consider forming “Circles of Support,” a national model that asks people of all classes and incomes to brainstorm solutions to poverty. Under the plan, a diverse group of community members meet weekly to envision and execute concrete plans for change.
It’s a targeted effort to rethink philosophies that have failed to budge the national poverty rate since about 1965, advocates said. Programs that simply provide services – food, shelter, clothing, counseling – don’t appear to be making much of a dent, said Scott Miller, a consultant for Move the Mountain Leadership of Ames, Iowa.
“We’re losing ground the way we’re doing it,” said Miller, who helped lead the regional presentations.
In Idaho, the poverty rate hovered at 11.8 percent in 2003, according to the latest figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s more than 160,000 people. In Kootenai County, about 10.4 percent of the overall population – more than 12,600 people – lives in poverty. Among children ages 17 and younger, nearly 15 percent – some 4,400 kids – are poor.
Changing that reality depends on providing a network of support to people who need it. Before that can happen, however, the community must understand that a problem exists, Haberman said. Advocates throughout Kootenai County agree that there’s a low level of consciousness about poverty and other social issues.
“The haves in our community have very little awareness of the have-nots,” he said.
That’s not because people of means lack compassion. Rather, it’s a question of access, he said.
“There isn’t any connection at all,” Haberman said. “If I’m writing a check to the food bank, I am writing that check, but in no way am I in contact with what hunger is all about.”
Under the new initiative, people of varied incomes and experiences would form relationships and help families in need brainstorm solutions to common problems. People struggling with poverty would be key figures in the work. The effort will begin with existing staff from the Community Action Agency, whose North Idaho budget is about $840,000.
But for it to succeed, it will depend on volunteer energy and goodwill, Haberman said.
Tapping that sort of civic sense is possible in North Idaho, said Michelle Britton, director for the regional office of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
“I think our community wants to be helpful, but we don’t always know how,” Britton said.
It’s up to leaders of Community Action Agency – and others in the social service community – to offer people the chance to help, said Gar Mickelson, a pastor at Hayden Lake Evangelical Friends Church. Another community group, led by the Kootenai Alliance for Children and Families, is planning a spring meeting to address that issue.
“You’ve got to invite people to the table and engage their sense of wanting to be tapped,” he said. “People want to be wanted. They want to be asked to do things.”
Once sparked, the effort could help head off problems that often accompany – or contribute to – poverty, including drug use, crime and poor school performance, Mickelson said.
“There’s a whole group of kids who are growing up in poverty who are just not going to be able to compete,” he said. “They’ll be tearing this community apart in 10 years, that’s what they’ll be doing.”