A Roadmap Out of Poverty

"Curing poverty from the child up"

Matt Williams (Photo by John Anderson)

A Roadmap Out of Poverty

The relationship between poverty and education is a well-documented two-way street, and Austin's booming population requires a comprehensive approach to finding solutions. At SXSWedu, a panel titled "A Tale of Two Cities in Central Texas" considers the value of utilizing new, more sophisticated data to better address mental health issues that block pathways from poverty to success. 

Matt Williams, Vice President of Education at Goodwill Cen­tral Texas, believes education is "one of the few ways out of poverty. … 3.5 million people in Texas don't have a high school diploma. What's our plan for them? 68 percent of prisoners don't have a high school diploma or a GED. We release 75,000 a year as a state. What's our plan?"

His organization serves as a one-stop shop for encouraging clients toward educational and workforce success. The Goodwill compound (located on Norwood Park, at I-35 and Anderson Lane) features an array of social services: an adult charter high school, dropout recovery high school, career and technical academy with 17 certification classes, the fourth-largest temp agency in Austin, in-house case management, hard and soft skill training, and job placement services. The community center also provides pre-K and parenting classes for students.

"The secret to our high school is that we didn't build the school for current students. We built the high school for current students' children," said Williams. "We want to make sure their parents can provide a world for them outside of poverty. That's an idea I think we really need to flip: curing poverty from the child up. Spending billions to bring up math scores 1 or 2 percent is not a solution to poverty. Making sure their parents have education and pathways to pull themselves out of poverty will see a big [change].

As the ability to obtain and track different data sets improves, Williams hopes any information gleaned will help advocates orchestrate a more holistic approach. "How long is the runway for folks who are impoverished, to really pull them out and change their mindset and make them overcome this feeling of impostership to success?" he asked. "If you've never been successful in an academic setting, you may not feel like you belong. If you've never had a career, you feel like that world's not for you.

"We want to really get our people to feel like they do belong and that they can do it, but that doesn't happen on a grant timeline often. A lot of grants are 90 days or 180 days with a client here in the local community. But our wisdom tells us it takes about seven to nine months for someone to really overcome that."

Susan McDowell (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Mental health is often overlooked when trying to bridge opportunity gaps. Susan McDowell, CEO of LifeWorks, a nonprofit that works with homeless youth, suggested "trauma is often the invisible factor in school success." The trauma that arises from poverty often takes a physical toll, which directly affects a student's school performance. By addressing factors such as abuse, food insecurity, housing instability, teen pregnancy, and homelessness, LifeWorks helps exceptionally vulnerable youth and young adults transition from crisis to self-sufficiency. "By recognizing trauma you can begin to create healing environments," she said.

McDowell echoes Williams' sentiment that recognizing the difficulty stemming from the growing population's increased demand for services makes acting upon data essential. "Austin is growing so fast that the problems are outpacing the ability to address them in more than piecemeal ways," he said. "But Austin absolutely cares about these issues.

"We go a long way to solving the problem if our community understands the issues."

A Tale of Two Cities in Central Texas

Tue., March 7, 3:30pm, JW Marriott Salon B

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