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Monday, May 16, 2011 - 1:00pm

Census Puts Poverty Programs In Focus

City, state and federal agencies spend billions of dollars fighting poverty.

Yet, forthcoming Census numbers are expected to show a jump in poverty.

Does rising poverty mean the programs don't work?

Of course, what causes poverty is as persistent a question as poverty itself.

Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson says, people's answers seem to fall into two intractible camps.

"The camp of personal responsibility. 'If these no good people would just get off their duffs and do something, they wouldn't be poor.' And then the other extreme, which says that the system is the cause of these issues," Johnson says.

Seven years ago, Savannah started an anti-poverty program that took from both camps.

Its name -- Step Up -- was intended to send a message that both the system and poor people need to change.

The approach was considered innovative and it's still bringing people to Savannah to talk to this man.

"We had Waco, Texas, here last week and we've got Pittsburg here this afternoon," Dodd says.

Dodd's program is a collaborative and works mainly through its partner organizations.

That notably includes many private firms.

Its main innovation is bringing diverse groups of people together to advocate for system changes in some cases and changes toward personal responsibility in others.

When the program began, Mayor Johnson had high hopes and promised numbers-based results.

"We wanted to be accountable. We wanted to be as transparent as we could. So we based our efforts on what we saw in the two-thousand Census," Johnson says.

Step Up gets about $200,000 a year from the city.

But officials are bound to be disappointed.

The Census won't report official poverty rates until fall.

But according to the Bureau's ongoing statistical surveys, poverty is up in both the city and state.

It's about 22% in Savannah and 19% in Georgia.

The city's poverty is especially hard to reduce.

Dodd says, it's hovered around the same number for decades, but...

"It's not generational poverty. It's not permanent poverty. It's easy to think because it hasn't changed for 30-years that it's the same group of people. But really, in actuality, it's not the same group of people who are stuck in poverty in Savannah," Dodd says.

People get sick. They lose jobs. They go into poverty and come out.

So, Dodd says, the Census shouldn't be the program's only measure of accountability.

"We can show results, very tangible results. We can show how many organizations are participating. We can show what we've helped. But we can't show 5,000 families were this way in 2000 and are this way in 2010," Dodd says.

Then, of course, there was a Recession. Who's to blame for that?

Savannah fared better than a lot of places but it still hit the poor hard.

"We have a report card where we set goals every year. We hold ourselves accountable. But let me be clear. Step Up on its own is not going to reduce poverty. We've got a long way to go in this community. But we still have a lot of momentum. And the fact that after seven years, we've still got 106 organizations working through Step Up, that sort of thing is going to have an impact," Dodd says.

As for holding the mayor accountable, he won't be on the ballot any time soon.

He's retiring after serving the maximum two four-year terms.

A new mayor will arrive just in time for the Census to say exactly how well or poorly the city did fighting poverty.

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