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W&L Study Assesses Rockbridge Area Poverty

Tourists in Lexington see a small picturesque town with a thriving population.

But Lexington City Manager Jon Ellestad knows there are surprising pockets of poverty and that the services people need are not necessarily reaching them.

A year ago, Ellestad decided he needed a thorough report on what exactly poverty looks like in the Rockbridge area. He wanted to know how to provide more effective services and better prioritize spending. But he didn’t have the funds for that sort of costly research.

Enter Washington and Lee University’s Shepherd Program on Poverty and Human Capability.

Professor Harlan Beckley, program director, assigned two seniors, Melissa Caron and Chris Martin, to the project at no cost to the city. The result is a 91-page report titled Rockbridge Poverty Assessment 2008. It catalogues and impartially assesses existing efforts to meet the needs of underserved populations. It also lays out potential solutions and shows how service providers can more effectively cooperate and coordinate their efforts.

Don Dailey, W&L visiting associate professor of teacher education, was the students’ mentor for the project. He calls the report important for the community, saying “while it is primarily focused on long term trends and issues related to poverty in the area, short term issues are also addressed. Both sides of this story are important, but making decisions with a long term focus is the bigger and ongoing challenge.”

Dailey’s background is in research and he has worked with prominent institutions. “I think this report is comparable to what you would see coming out of a paid consulting agency for a fairly high price,” he says. “I haven’t seen students successfully pull together a report like this before, and in such a short time. It’s attracted the attention of some national agencies who didn’t realize that students can do something like this.”

“At first it was a little overwhelming but it was an amazing experience,” says Caron, a journalism major. She and Martin, a politics major, are both doing a concentration in poverty studies, and they devoted 12 weeks to the research during the fall of 2008.

Martin says he appreciated getting away from the campus and communicating with people in the community. “You see people around you every day in the community but you don’t really have a chance to interact with them. I think it’s fantastic to be able to do not only real social work, but also to build positive relations with people. Community-based research is the perfect combination of theory and practice and is what the college experience should be about.”

Ellestad received the final report in February 2009, and describes it as “very comprehensive,” pointing out that it is not just for the city of Lexington. “It covers the whole Rockbridge area of Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County,” he says.
The students engaged in field research, conducted focus groups and multiple interviews with the area’s prominent community leaders and service providers. “We looked at the types of services that are available for people experiencing some aspect of poverty,” says Caron. “We wanted to find out where the holes are, and the problems in meeting people’s needs.”

After quantifying what constitutes poverty in the area, the report identifies 10 areas that need to be addressed: affordable transportation; safe and low-cost housing; accessible health and human services; sustainable employment options; hunger and food security; problems faced by the disabled; available child care and day care; diverse educational opportunities; elderly issues; and challenges facing non-English speaking immigrant populations.

The report highlights a pressing need for more transportation, which prevents people from finding and keeping employment, visiting the doctor, buying groceries or taking children to day care. It also isolates people socially. Unfortunately, there is no stable public or private transit system in the area for non-emergency rides. This issue is most keenly felt in Buena Vista and Lexington, where the number of people who do not own a vehicle is double the state average (14.2 percent compared to 7.7 percent).

Duplication of existing transportation services is another issue. The Rockbridge Area Transportation System (RATS), Maury River Senior Center, Kendal retirement facility, Virginia Military Institute and W&L each has an independent transportation system. “Everybody is transporting all over,” says one community leader in the report, asking “How can we coordinate that? Are there common routes?”

The report recommends establishing a task force to look at ways to both expand transportation services and make them more efficient.

Caron says one of the biggest surprises of their research was the lack of coordination between services. “There is a need to work together. We found there are a lot of different services in the community but they need to collaborate and find ways to prevent overlap.”

While there are several resource books and referral systems that detail available services, they are not up-to-date and many residents do not know about them. Instead, they learn about them through word of mouth. Many people go without services due to lack of knowledge.

The report also illustrates a lack of awareness among service providers of the work of other agencies and their eligibility guidelines. As one community leader says in the report, “Nothing frustrates an applicant more than being sent by one agency to another agency only to be told that they do not qualify.” To overcome this, the report recommends creating an organization to fill a coordinating role.

In the same vein, the ingrained belief that Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County are independent entities prevents people from accessing services. One leader says in the report that she has a hard time getting area agencies to realize that they serve the whole area, not just the municipality they are located in. Likewise, individuals are deterred from seeking services outside where they live, simply because they associate themselves with the municipality they live in. As the report points out, when a family needs services and they go to the phone book, they say “That (service) is in Staunton so that’s not for us.” Then they don’t see services specifically for Rockbridge, get frustrated and give up.

Ellestad agrees, saying “We have such a broad array of services available, but no real central coordinating place to go to access them. I think the recommendation about more coordination has real potential.”

One result of the Rockbridge Poverty Assessment is a Community Forum on Poverty, scheduled for Tuesday, April 21 at the Virginia Horse Center. It is a joint effort of the W&L Shepherd Poverty Program and a core group of interested agencies –United Way, the Free Clinic and Social Services. This is possibly the largest such gathering in the community to address the issue of poverty.

The students’ report provides a solid basis from which to start.