Dubuque City Council members last month voted unanimously to adopt the Equitable Poverty Reduction and Prevention Plan.

The 232-page document details strategies that the city will pursue to combat poverty, the latest step in addressing an area that city leaders have identified and discussed as a high priority in recent years.

The massive plan features lofty goals and ambitious projects, but city officials have expressed enthusiasm for its array of proposals.

“It looks at poverty with a very wide lens,” said Council Member Brad Cavanagh. “Reducing poverty isn’t going to be solved by focusing on one issue, so this plan was the perfect jumping-off point.”

While local nonprofit organizations that have been working to combat poverty for years welcome the plan, they also stress that truly making an impact on Dubuque’s impoverished population will take significant time and resources and that it could be many years before positive results stemming from the plan are seen.

“It’s going to take a lot of time and effort, and that level of commitment will be determined by the leaders of Dubuque,” said Caprice Jones, director of Fountain of Youth in Dubuque, which has a mission that includes helping those affected by generational poverty. “Right now, I am trusting that they will continue to work to make changes happen.”

Formation of the plan

In 2019, 15.9% of Dubuque residents fell under the federal poverty level, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That year, the federal government considered a single person to be in poverty if he or she had an annual income of $12,490 or less, while the threshold for a family of four was $25,750.

Dubuque’s poverty rate was higher than the state of Iowa’s 2019 rate of 11.2%. Additionally, the city’s poverty rate has risen in the past 10 years as well, from 10% in 2010.

Some officials contend that the income levels used in the federal poverty standards are too low and that, as a result, far more people in Dubuque are living in impoverished conditions than is reflected in those statistics.

The Equitable Poverty Reduction and Prevention Plan states that the poverty measure was established in the 1960s and “is based on research indicating that families spend about one-third of their incomes on food.

“This current model for determining poverty is widely acknowledged to be outdated,” it states. “As the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University explains, food now comprises only one-seventh of an average family’s expenses, while the costs of housing, child care, health care and transportation have grown disproportionately.”

It continues, “According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, most analysts agree that today’s poverty thresholds are too low. And although there is no consensus about what constitutes a minimum but decent standard of living in the U.S., research consistently shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice the federal poverty level to meet their most basic needs.”

The plan suggests that income thresholds for measuring poverty be doubled to more accurately reflect the actual impoverished in the community — which would mean that 32% of families of four in Dubuque were impoverished.

The city’s level of poverty also comes with racial disparities. About 60% of Black residents live in poverty, compared to 26% of Hispanic residents and 13% of White residents.

In 2019, the City Council, in response to rising poverty levels, voted to spend $74,750 for the development of the poverty prevention plan.

The city hired Public Works LLC, a consulting firm based in Pennsylvania, to lead city staff in drafting the plan. Over a yearlong period, the city and Public Works coordinated with city staff, nonprofit organizations and experts on policies and initiatives that could address poverty in Dubuque.

Linda Rhodes is the vice president of health education and policy and practice for Public Works who led the development of the plan. She said many aspects of it were directly contributed by local residents and nonprofits.

“We made sure to speak with people in Dubuque who were living in poverty,” she said. “There was a desire to have the plan partially crafted by the community.”

Jones said he worked with Public Works to organize interviews with people living in poverty, providing what he feels was an essential voice for the plan.

“They were able to provide powerful testimony about their life experiences,” he said. “You can’t address generational poverty without hearing from people who are actually living through it.”

Rhodes said she also drew from the practices of cities throughout the country, examining their initiatives to reduce local poverty levels and determining if a similar project would work in Dubuque. She particularly focused on the poverty prevention efforts of Philadelphia and of Richmond, Va.

“Both of those communities are in a similar situation to Dubuque, and they have already made progress in trying to directly address poverty,” she said.

In early March, Dubuque City Council members voted unanimously to adopt the plan. Shortly afterward, city staff began working to develop its most substantial element, a new city department.

Office of Shared Prosperity

In 2013, the City of Philadelphia established the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity. It was an effort by the office of then-Mayor Michael Nutter to address the city’s high level of poverty, which stood at 28.4% in 2013.

The executive director of that office, Mitchell Little, said its creation was prompted after the city adopted its Shared Prosperity Plan, a broader document detailing strategies the city would take to combat poverty.

“We act as a place to pilot and innovate,” Little said, later adding, “We do that all with equity at the center of our work.”

Elsewhere, the City of Richmond, Va., created the Office of Community Wealth Building in 2015 and created poverty-prevention initiatives. They include a living-wage certificate program, which highlights businesses that pay employees what is deemed to be a living wage, and a housing advocate program, which helps residents seek affordable housing options.

In 2019, Richmond’s poverty rate fell to 21.9%, down from 26.8% in 2016. In 2020, the city budgeted $1.3 million toward the Office of Community Wealth Building.

Dubuque’s poverty prevention plan suggested that a similar office be established — one that would not only lead the development of many of the proposed initiatives detailed in the plan but also act as an agency that would coordinate poverty prevention efforts among numerous nonprofit organizations and city departments to create more focused and deliberate responses to the needs of residents.

Currently dubbed the Office of Shared Prosperity, its creation was approved by City Council as part of the fiscal year 2022 budget. The office will have a director, a data analyst and a secretary. The city’s community engagement coordinator position also will transition to work at the new office.

To reduce the costs of creating the new office, city staff would alter the existing neighborhood development specialist position, which is currently vacant, to include the duties of directing the new department.

The data analyst and secretary positions, however, would require the city to spend an additional $102,355 to hire employees to fill them.

The budget recommendation states that the new office would be located in an existing city facility, with plans to eventually relocate it to the former fire station building near the intersection of Central Avenue and 18th Street.

Wally Wernimont, planning services manager for the city, said it is undetermined when the office will be fully operational. While city staff will seek to hire a director for the office in July, the data analyst and secretary positions — which were labeled as essential elements of the office — have been frozen by the city manager at least until November.

“At this point, we can’t say when the office will be running in full force,” Wernimont said. “We are still in the beginning stages.”

When the office is established, Rhodes said it will allow the city to work directly with nonprofits already fighting poverty through various programs. A primary focus of the office, she said, will be to better connect residents with the services provided by those nonprofits and other programs.

“The office will look at how to maximize our resources among each other,” Rhodes said. “It ensures that these organizations don’t just remain in their own silos.”

That aspect of the office is in many ways already the purpose of an existing Dubuque nonprofit, Resources Unite, which also works to connect residents living in poverty to services that could support them. Director Josh Jasper said he sees the similarities between his organization and the new city office, but he also sees opportunity.

“Someone in my position would initially feel defensive,” he said. “I’m coming from a place where this ideally would be a chance to collaborate.”

The city’s plan also calls for the office to use a data analyst to track the progress of poverty prevention efforts. While no details are provided regarding what metrics will be tracked, the plan states that the city will collaborate with local organizations to provide deep analysis of collected city data on poverty to provide future progress benchmarks.

Little said the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity in Philadelphia also developed many of its own programs, such as the implementation of benefit-access centers that provide residents in poverty with assistance in applying for nonprofit and government support programs.

“They allow someone to access over 20 benefits in about 40 minutes,” Little said. “Before we launched this program, it would take about 40 minutes to apply for one benefit.”

The Philadelphia office also launched financial empowerment centers throughout the city that provide residents with counseling on financial topics, including budgeting, student loans and homeownership.

Rhodes said she expects Dubuque to develop similar services to assist residents in applying for assistance programs, along with the office creating new poverty prevention initiatives as well.

A good model to follow?

While the Dubuque plan advocates for the creation of an office similar to that of the one Philadelphia, the actual results of the latter office remain mixed eight years after its creation.

The poverty rate of Philadelphia had declined from 28.4% in 2013 to 23.3% in 2019 before increasing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While these results are positive, they also align with a general national trend of declining poverty rates.

In 2013, the U.S. national poverty rate was 14.8%. In 2019, it stood at 10.5%.

The office reported in 2019 that it served 15,158 clients, enrolling 3,322 people in public assistance programs, aiding 1,579 people in receiving job training, coaching or other forms of support and connecting 907 people to jobs.

However, the office also has been met with criticism for making little progress over several years and with substantial investment. In a 2017 report, the most recent published by the city on the office, only four of the 25 listed goals in the city’s Shared Prosperity Plan had been completed.

In October, Philadelphia announced it was adjusting the role of the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity to focus on addressing sustained poverty and growing income disparity in the community.

In fiscal year 2020, the Philadelphia office spent $15.1 million, of which $2.5 million went to employee compensation.

How much Dubuque’s Office of Shared Prosperity will spend has not yet been determined by the city. While the new employee positions for the office will total $102,355 in added costs, Wernimont said the office’s operating budget has not been established.

“We don’t have that determined yet,” he said. “This is still very much a work in progress.”

Little contended that Philadelphia has seen a decline in poverty since his office was established, along with an increase in people accessing assistance programs. However, he added that substantially impacting poverty has remained challenging and has required substantial funding from the federal government.

“There are a lot of things that you don’t control,” he said. “A lot of these fixes are at the federal level.”

Ultimately, Little said Philadelphia’s efforts to reduce poverty is a long-term effort that will require sustained support from both residents and political leaders. He said that same support will be required for Dubuque as well if a real impact is to be made.

Poverty Prevention Plan proposals

While the creation of the Office of Shared Prosperity is still underway, there are several other proposals in the Equitable Poverty Reduction and Prevention Plan that are already in development by city staff.

The new plan categorizes proposals based on what aspect of poverty they address, from racial equity to affordable housing.

One major proposal is the expanded integration of social workers into the Dubuque Police Department. The department already received approval to hire a community diversion and prevention coordinator, who will work with police to apply social work strategies to divert people from entering jail, along with assisting people after a jail sentence. The position will cost the city $88,060 annually.

Police Chief Mark Dalsing said the inclusion of social work into the police department won’t stop there. Over time, Dalsing envisions officers implementing and utilizing social work resources to help many of the people they have contact with.

“It’s been one of the things that has been a missing link in our community,” Dalsing said. “There’s a strong desire to have that social worker aspect attached to policing.”

The plan also includes examining and possibly introducing reforms for city fines and fees that are considered disproportionately harmful to low-income residents. Dalsing suggested that community service could act as a useful alternative.

The creation of several ordinances also is suggested in the plan.

One proposal, the creation of an ordinance that would prevent landlords from rejecting tenants who receive government housing assistance, was tabled by the City Council after legislation introduced in the Legislature would effectively prohibit any municipality from passing such an ordinance. That bill since has passed both the Iowa House of Representatives and Senate

The plan also suggests the passage of an ordinance that would prohibit local job applications from including a section asking people if they have been convicted of a felony. A similar proposal was heavily discussed but not acted on by City Council members in 2015, and the issue has not been discussed by current council members recently.

Cavanagh said he is interested in the proposed ordinance but has not decided if he would support its adoption.

“Criminal history far too often gets in the way of people getting employment,” he said. “I want to learn more about it. I am generally more supportive of things that tear down barriers for employment for people.”

Rick Dickinson, president and CEO of Greater Dubuque Development Corp., said he personally opposes the passage of such an ordinance, arguing that it would prove counterproductive to both employers and prospective employees.

“Eventually, an employer is going to need to find out if someone has a prior criminal record,” he said. “We believe in employers offering second chances, but an ordinance like this is the oversimplification of a challenging problem.”

The plan also seeks to address disparities in education and youth programming, suggesting enhancing funding for local youth organizations, creating a citywide prosperity coordinating council and co-sponsoring career-oriented programming for youth.

Dawn Cogan, executive director of St. Mark Youth Enrichment, said she welcomes the proposals outlined in the plan, adding that it will be important for the city to continually support programs that combat generational poverty.

“We need to also look at this from a prevention lens,” she said. “I don’t think this is the flavor of the month. I think the city has their hearts and minds invested in this.”

There are numerous other proposals in the plan as well, including subsidizing vehicle repair insurance, developing a food access app and establishing an ordinance that would require landlords to provide a specific reason for evicting a tenant.

Local nonprofit leaders agree that nearly all of the proposals would benefit the community and could help reduce poverty, but they also said the scope of the plan is immense and will, in turn, require a significant long-term commitment from city officials.

“You have to realize the amount of time it will take to really end poverty in the community,” Cogan said.

While the scope of the plan is substantial, local leaders already fighting poverty expressed optimism, saying that perhaps the city possesses the resources to truly make an impact in the area.

“I’m more than optimistic about the plan,” Jasper said. “I think this could really be the start of a great new chapter.”

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