October 17 was the United Nations’ “International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.” While I applaud the awareness the day creates, the fact that poverty exists in a country as wealthy as the United States is a moral failure. It is holding back this nation and is as shameful as it is heart-breaking.
With COVID-19 forcing a reevaluation of nearly every aspect of society, perhaps we can use this opportunity to adjust our approach to eradicating poverty and food insecurity by better linking philanthropy with workforce development. Doing so would help address two issues: poverty and our employers’ need for talent.
Such an effort is going to require rethinking how we do things in philanthropic and business circles as well as understanding where we stand amid the health and economic crises caused by the pandemic. The barriers to prosperity and social mobility are long-standing and well known. Lack of transportation, limited access to health care, illiteracy, and language and cultural barriers – are disproportionately felt by underserved communities, including women, immigrants, and people of color as the pandemic reminded us.
At Zaman International our typical client is a single mother with two children living on less than $12,000 annually. Over 20 years of work, we have learned that the best way to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty is through a holistic approach that empowers our resilient clients to overcome the barriers they face and pursue sustainable employment.
Our Hope for Humanity Center in Inkster is a one-stop for hope that first provides for basic needs then positions women to complete vocation training in the sewing and culinary arts industries. It provides a secure, safe environment as they develop the skills and confidence needed to eventually pursue outside employment or start their own business. It is a proven model we are proud of and working to expand to meet growing need in our community.
While I remain hopeful we will put the lessons of the pandemic to work to meaningfully address poverty and increased food security, my fear is that this crisis will pass without the changes needed to correct the systemic issues that perpetuate intergenerational poverty.
The American Rescue Plan, for instance, is a major step in the right direction, but it cannot damper our sense of urgency. We won’t lift everyone out of poverty without a commitment across all facets of society for generations, and it’s going to need to happen family by family. Yes, government can help, and perhaps lead the charge – but it is going to take a broader coordinated effort across the public, private and philanthropic sectors.
At Zaman, like so many other non-profits, we are taking on poverty one life and livelihood at a time, but we know it’s not enough. It’s going to take us all working together in new ways. But most of all, it requires a sustained, long-term financial commitment to fund a nationwide workforce-based philanthropic strategy that can be replicated and tailored to individual communities.
I know this country can overcome any challenge when it puts its collective mind to it. In terms of eradicating poverty, I hope we choose to do so.
Najah Bazzy, RN, is founder and CEO of Zaman International, a 2020 Detroit News Michiganian of the Year, Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame Inductee, and CNN Hero.