Local Politics: County's poverty reduction blueprint ambitious, challenging

Rob Moore

Earlier this month, the Franklin County Commissioners outlined a 120-point plan to fight poverty in Ohio’s largest county.

The Blueprint for Reducing Poverty in Franklin County is the culmination of a process that started almost a year and a half ago when the county first submitted a request for proposals for development of a county-wide poverty assessment and strategic plan.

Throughout this process, there has been a healthy dose of skepticism from many community members. Some balked at the price tag for the study. Some wondered why every steering committee member had a title like “CEO” or “Director” and none of them had “community member.”

In the end, though, the county emerged with a strong action plan. While 120 points seems audacious and unwieldy, the steering committee settled on three major priorities: creating living-wage jobs, increasing access to job training and growing the number of academically successful students living in poverty.

Even more exciting is the county’s additional commitment: to study an expanded child care subsidy program and a universal pre-K program, both of which could be massive levers for poverty reduction.

The county has also committed to action steps to carry out these goals. It will be creating an “Innovation Center” housed at the Columbus Partnership and funded by the county, with full-time staff overseen by a “Leadership Council” appointed by the Franklin County Commissioners.

The Innovation Center has the opportunity to be an incredible catalyst for poverty reduction in Franklin County, but it has a big task ahead of it to balance two competing ideals.

On the one hand, the Innovation Center is conceived as a policy analysis unit. It is being asked to “tackle ideas to treat the causes of poverty” and to “vet… big ideas,” and the center is funded by Franklin County Job and Family Services’ Strategic Transformation and Research Unit. This means it will be charged with analyzing the cost effectiveness of alternative poverty alleviation strategies.

On the other hand, the Innovation Center is charged with “bringing community partners together and implementing the blueprint,” and some of those community partners may disagree with the center’s policy analysis and may also have political reasons to support less effective poverty alleviation programs over more effective programs.

The center will have to be cautious to not be either a spineless community “yes man” or a detached ivory tower of research. This will mean staffing with a consideration for balancing community buy-in and analytic rigor. It will also mean tough conversations about priorities and use of community resources.

With all that in mind, Franklin County is off to a good start. Let’s hope this promising beginning leads to results for poverty reduction in Central Ohio.

Rob Moore is the principal for Scioto Analysis, a Columbus-based policy analysis firm.