Published in Nonprofits

SW Michigan United Way CEO focuses on educating legislators on struggles of working poor

BY Sunday, December 22, 2019 01:44pm

United Ways around the country continue to focus on the population of people who are Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE), or another measure for the working poor. United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region President and CEO Chris Sargent said about 40 percent of people in the region live paycheck to paycheck, which has many ripple effects in the community. 

What’s on your mind as you look ahead to next year? 

The trends we’ve been experiencing in the nonprofit sector in the last few years is that overall giving to many local nonprofits is down. But, there’s also a lot of good causes out there, and a lot of opportunities to give to good causes. New nonprofits and new ways for people to give sometimes create limitations for how donors are giving. 

United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region President and CEO Chris Sargent COURTESY PHOTO

How could the 2020 presidential election affect the nonprofit sector?

With an election year, there are definitely lots of ‘asks’ and invitations to give. We know there are limited resources for people to give with discretionary income. United Ways, the nonprofit sector and our partners work with people from all political affiliations. We’re bigger than one particular issue. We’re really focused on every individual who’s interested in helping to support their community.

Does the political climate filter into the nonprofit industry? 

One thing we have seen in the political environment that plays out from a national perspective is the continuation of the creation of division across the country, which has the potential to impact what is happening at the state and local level. There’s this thinking that, ‘I’m going to do what’s best for me first and I might think of someone else in the community second.’

What does that mean for nonprofits and people locally?

The division we are seeing across the country creates a division locally about how we tackle complex social issues and take care of our friends and neighbors who are vulnerable. ALICE populations are the largest in our communities. If we continue to see this gap and it continues to increase, there may come a time when we won’t be able to support nonprofits that fill those gaps. I worry about the divisions in the country, the economy and more people with less resources to make ends meet on a monthly basis.

Given your work around the ALICE population, where do you advocate for more change? 

We continue to advocate for SNAP benefits because we know that some of the cuts to SNAP benefits are going to continue to jeopardize vulnerable families. More than 70 percent of the resources in the community for food and to address food insecurity issues comes from the government’s support of the SNAP program. If you look at basic need resources like food and emergency shelter, we advocate in key pieces of legislation related to work requirements implemented as part of expanded Medicare benefits. 

We don’t want the most vulnerable in our community to lose benefits because of unintended conversations about the requirements they must meet to maintain those benefits. Let’s not do anything that prevents vulnerable families and children from getting access to basic needs.

What type of legislation would you like to see enacted to help the nonprofit sector?

The most recent conversations we’ve had with legislators is around the charitable tax deductions and the implications of that. It’s hard to measure and understand at an organizational level the impact of that. Millions of dollars will not be coming philanthropically. Universally, legislators are aware of that implication. They all share in the knowledge that this will reduce the amount of philanthropic giving. Nonprofit networks like United Way were having a lot of conversations with legislators to prevent that, to no avail.

What will be among your continued focuses in 2020?

Generally speaking, most of our elected officials know how important the nonprofit sector is. It represents 10 percent of the labor force and provides a lot of support to constituents. There’s always opportunities with numerous issues to have productive conversations on multiple sides of the aisle and a lot of people we work with at the state and local level are people we’ve known for a long time. They know when we come and talk to them that we’re representing United Way or other nonprofits and we’re coming to them from a place of impact of what’s happening with the constituents we’re representing. The challenge is where the resources are going to come from to support the programs needed.

We are nonpartisan and we talk about issues that are important to people in our community. We talk about it from an issue perspective and helping people understand about intended and unintended consequences.

Talk about some of the headwinds for the nonprofit sector next year.

The nonprofit sector goes as the economy goes. If a recession happens and the economy slows, business slows and philanthropy slows. The ability for nonprofits to generate and leverage private resources that are not enough to counter cuts at the state and federal level continues to be a concern for us. 

We’ve heard talk about the importance of living wages with benefits. The ALICE Report shows how much an individual needs to make to support basic needs in a household. It’s the private sector that has to fund the different needs we see. We spend a lot of time with organizations and companies asking, ‘What does it look like to compensate workers with living wages and benefits?’

On the flip side, what opportunities do you see ahead for 2020? 

This region is one of the most generous philanthropically. We have a history of being extremely generous and supportive of our friends and neighbors. I know there have been many cases where there have been challenges and we have always had generous individuals, organizations and companies and businesses that have stepped up and that won’t change. We have some of the most talented and passionate people leading our nonprofits. We are fortunate to have the skills of great leaders who are helping people who need support and lifting them up.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct a typo in the headline that appeared in the web version of the article.

Read 1417 times Last modified on Friday, 27 December 2019 07:07
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