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Palm Beach workers talk county’s plan to tackle poverty

“Poverty is bad for your health.”

Several representatives from Palm Beach organizations aimed at helping people out of poverty joined Wednesday’s discussion at the Florida Chamber Foundation Summit on Prosperity and Economic Opportunity.

The summit is taking place at the Palm Beach Convention Center, making it natural to focus on local efforts to deal with the issue.

James Green, the Director of the Palm Beach County Community Services Department, began the panel noting the complexity of tackling all the different factors contributing to a person being in poverty.

“The question becomes, ‘How do we begin to work together, within those systems and across sectors, to make sure there’s an integrated approach to reaching the families that we’re trying to serve?’ ”

Green cited data showing the homeless population costs the county between $35,000 and $40,000 each year, due to emergency room visits, criminal justice violations and other costs.

He argued that spending money to house those who are homeless will actually end up saving the county money.

But those on hand Wednesday represented a broad swath of local efforts to combat poverty, beyond just the homeless population. And they demonstrated the complexity of the problem, given all the different facets of a person’s life that could put up barriers to climbing the economic ladder.

Patrick McNamara, President & CEO of the Palm Health Foundation, said research is showing that there’s a need for increased attention on behavioral health within Palm Beach County and beyond.

“It has a tremendous amount to do with economic mobility,” McNamara said of behavioral health. “Poverty is bad for your health.”

Julia Dattolo, Vice President of CareerSource Palm Beach County, talked about her organization’s effort to help individuals find jobs.

“The one-stop philosophy is that we provide all the services available for finding employment,” Dattolo said.

That includes resources helping individuals draft a resume, teaching them how to interview, and giving them access to financial support.

“The one-stop means that you have everything under one roof, everything that you need to start your trajectory to a better career and a better life.”

Michele Jacobs, President & CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County was also on hand. That council was created about 25 years ago and aims to bring the business community together to help tackle local issues.

“Our organization is made up of the top 100 business leaders in Palm Beach County,” Jacobs said. “Our members identify social issues or issues that are important to our community and try to find ways to solve those issues.”

Christine Koehn, Executive Director of Achieve Palm Beach County, looked at the education side, offering data showing the need for increased education inside the county.

“A projected 68 percent of our workers need to have some education beyond high school,” Koehn noted. “What data bears out is that only 44 percent of our high school graduates will have some kind of post-secondary credential within six years of high school.”

For low-income students, that number drops to 32 percent. Koehn says that her group is aimed at pushing high school students to earn some sort of post-secondary degree within that six-year window.

Finally, Tammy Fields discussed her work on the Birth to 22 Alliance. That organization takes a wide-ranging approach to ensure the health and growth of children on through adulthood.

Fields pointed out the racial disparities of wealth distribution, arguing those needed to be factored into the discussion.

“There are a lot of factors and barriers, systemic barriers, that make it different on the basis of race,” Fields said. “We have to have those conversations and we need to make sure we are addressing those.”

Written By

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to ryan.t.nicol@gmail.com.

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