End Poverty in Louisiana

Michael Williamson, president and CEO of the United Way of Southeast Louisiana, says his organization can do it if the business community is on board.
Portraits by Greg Miles

 

The United Way of Southeast Louisiana (UWSELA) has a clear goal: to see a future where every single resident of our region is healthy, educated and economically stable.

It’s a lofty ambition, given that currently in New Orleans, 48 percent of residents can’t afford the basics to survive.

The organization’s president and CEO, Michael Williamson, acknowledges the challenge but says it’s far from impossible.  

A native of Aiken, South Carolina, Williamson’s first interaction with the United Way occurred shortly out of college when the bank where he was working loaned him out to the organization as a volunteer loans executive.

“This is back in the days when companies, banks and businesses could loan their employees to United Ways for a three-month period to help with a campaign,” he explains.

A few months later, the nonprofit offered him a job as director of marketing and resources development, which he happily accepted, eventually rising to become CEO before joining United Way Worldwide in 2004.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit.

“I was immediately tasked with staffing the United Way of America Hurricane Response and Recovery Fund,” he says. “It was a national fundraising effort to raise money for United Way communities in the Gulf… I was charged with raising resources and helping local United Ways and their communities recover. I think all in all, we raised about $28 million.”

Williamson’s success led to him joining UWSELA in the spring of 2009 as the chief operating officer with an agreement that he would eventually become CEO. That happened in June of 2013. Williamson currently leads a staff of 45 full-time employees, along with thousands of volunteers across a seven-parish region of Southeast Louisiana.

Since taking the helm, Williamson says he’s been excited to see the organization narrow its focus to eradicating poverty and step beyond only funding other nonprofits to creating its own efforts on that front, which has included joining with United Ways across Louisiana to create the ALICE Report, the third version of which was release Jan. 8, 2019.

An effort to get a clearer picture of how many people are struggling financially, the ALICE Report looks at Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed individuals — the working poor. ALICE individuals and families earn more than the federal poverty level but are unable to afford the basic necessities of housing, food, childcare, health care, transportation and basic technology, such as a smartphone.  

The latest report updates indicate that 828,255 households — approximately 48 percent of Louisiana’s total households — are unable to afford basic costs of living.  The number is up 6 percent since the first ALICE Report in 2017.

While the numbers are far from encouraging, Williamson says a war is being waged against poverty, and in that war, business has a very important part to play.


How did the United Way of Southeast Louisiana come to focus on poverty?

One of the important things to do as an organization like ours, especially as we were transforming the way we do business, our business model, was to turn outward and go talk to people. We hosted 63 community conversations throughout the seven parishes that we serve and what we heard repeatedly was that the issue of poverty is the single most important issue in our region, for both people who live in poverty and struggle financially, but also for folks who don’t. Poverty places stress and pressure on our social services sector, and the government agencies trying to meet those needs.

One of my first acts as CEO, I think it was actually the first day that I started, was to talk to our chief operating officer, Charmaine Caccioppi, about the establishment of a formal public policy committee of our board. We called on Kim Sport to chair that; she’s an accomplished attorney and a fierce advocate in the community. Almost six years ago, we formed our first public policy committee, and from there, every year we produce a legislative agenda and an advocacy plan that can ultimately affect communities and address the barriers to economic opportunity that hold folks in poverty.

What are some of the programs that you support on that end?

We’re currently funding 50 different organizations and their programs. Those 50 organizations host about 74 different programs that we fund. They are programs like Kingsley House, Family Services of Greater New Orleans, Second Harvest Food Bank and the St. Bernard Battered Women’s Shelter.

We’re funding their programs, but something we did different, because we really wanted to pivot and start to tackle systems-level issues, is we’ve also started funding collaboratives.

When did this happen?

A little over three and a half years ago — that’s when we did an open announcement and we had 50 collaboratives apply. We were actually able to interview 12 prospective collaboratives, and we are now going into our third year of funding, seven different collaboratives, that are focused on, for example the New Orleans Campaign for Grade Level Reading, the Louisiana Prisoner Reentry Initiative, Youth Force NOLA, the Ending Homelessness Collaborative, in partnership with Unity, the Now Collaborative in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and other folks in the workforce development space.

We’re spending about $500,000 or so a year on those collaboratives.

Let’s talk a bit about the ALICE report. What does this latest version show?

The reality is, we’ve seen in the past several years a downward trend on families and poverty. We’ve seen a little bit of growth, a few percentage points’ growth, among households that are earning above the poverty level wages, based on how the federal government defines poverty. Which, one can argue, might be a little bit antiquated, but that’s the measure we have.

We’ve seen that of our households that are earning above poverty, however, they’re not earning enough to meet the basic survival budget — housing, transportation, childcare, health care, basic needs. That is, on one hand…a little bit disappointing. At the same time, we’re hopeful that it shows some degree of upward mobility, that folks may be gradually trying to move out of poverty. They may struggle financially still, but they may be struggling less than they were before.

What it tells us in Southeast Louisiana is that one of every two households is either living in poverty or struggling financially, and doesn’t earn enough to make ends meet.

It’s been eye-opening, but it’s a great conversation starter when folks want to talk about wages. You have to look at what a person needs if they live in Orleans Parish, to take care of their family. Then drive the conversation around not what is the minimum, but what is required. We’ve received great feedback from our corporate partners and policymakers that are now touting the report, and saying, this report is a very helpful tool for us to understand what our community, or our communities are facing.

In New Orleans, 63 percent of residents are living below the ALICE threshold. In Baton Rouge it’s 57 percent and in Shreveport it’s 56 percent. Our metro area on average is at 48 percent.

If you look at how Louisiana compares to the rest of the country and other communities, we have the third-highest rate of ALICE in the nation.

Louisiana uses the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. How does that compare to what someone actually needs to live?

An individual in Orleans Parish needs to make about $11.09 an hour. For a family of four, it’s about $30.37 an hour. If you look at all of Louisiana, it’s about $9.77 on average, for an individual, and then for a family of four, on average in the state, you need to make almost $27 an hour to meet the basic needs of a family.

So, we should be raising our minimum wage?

Yes, but it’s not just about raising the minimum, but creating an environment where individuals have the education, the skills and the tools they need to acquire the high-wage, high-demand jobs that are being created not just in our communities, but other communities around the state. We really believe that informing those discussions, especially amongst business leaders and policymakers, is what it takes and the ALICE report lays it out so very clearly. Businesses can the make the decisions around offering competitive wages to their employees, which allows them to attract and retain their employees, especially during a time where unemployment rates are reaching all-time lows.

Unemployment is low, but you also see reports of people are having to take multiple jobs to make ends meet. How does that factor in?

Yeah. Definitely. We’ve seen amongst ALICE households, that individuals, in order to string together the income to meet their household needs, are having to work multiple jobs, because they can get a part-time job here, or a part-time job there.

The numbers I quoted early are really the bare bones basic, meaning you could be making $11.09 an hour as an individual and find a way to put together housing and transportation, etc., but that’s it. You’re not going to have any resources for savings. [You probably would] not be saving for retirement, certainly not saving to evacuate the community if a natural disaster comes. If you happen to have a car and it breaks down and it’s going to cost you $400 to get it fixed, you don’t have that money.

What happens is — and we highlight this in a document called Consequences of ALICE — when one thing goes wrong, one health emergency, national disaster, or car repair gets sprung on these individuals, it literally throws them into a downward spiral. They can’t go to work. They’re missing work. They’re getting paid by the hour. They’re losing income. Soon, what started out at as a $400 price tag to get my car fixed, actually turns into several times that with lost wages and productivity and business.

Oftentimes, you can drive down the street and you can see a homeless person, and say, that’s a person who lives in poverty. But, what we oftentimes don’t think about, is the working poor. The folks that are facing financial hardship.

You know what, we know who they are. You’ll see them, they’re in the service industries, we may see them in a coffee shop, or in a grocery store. They can be a home health worker, providing care for one of our elderly citizens. These are our families, neighbors, friends of coworkers.

How is the United Way of Southeast Louisiana specifically working to eradicate poverty?

Back in the day, we were perceived as a pass-through funder. We’d raise money to fund a bunch of great organizations, then we go out and raise some more money the next year and fund a bunch of great organizations. I think how we are innovative and unique and unlike others, is we’re funding programs, we’re funding collaboratives and tackling systems issues, we’re in Baton Rouge, advocating for policy change that’s aligned with our goals and objectives, but we’re also contacting with departments at the state to leverage our capacity on the ground, to help us collectively achieve our mission to reduce and hopefully eradicate poverty.

As an organization, what is your return on investment?

For every dollar invested in United Way, we create $2.66 in community impact.

It’s not all about money, though. It’s also about policy, and advocacy, and mobilizing a community to get out and be active in their community and help tackle the issues that are wound tight within poverty.

How much does United Way contribute to these efforts every year? What’s the budget for Southeast Louisiana?

Our overall campaign goal this year is $12.3 million.

When you talk about policy changes, what kind of things are you advocating for?

We’ve had I think groundbreaking efforts and amazing breakthroughs around domestic violence and sexual assault. We pushed for the expansion of the state earned income tax credit. We supported legislation around pay equity. We’re supporting efforts to encourage paid family medical leave. Strengthening laws against domestic violence. Obviously, the work around criminal justice reform, we’ve been a funder and a supporter of Louisiana Smart on Crime, to advance the policy successes that took place recently.

Now, we’re pivoting to, how do we develop more effective reentry system. We’re also working on early childhood education. We’re in the discussions right now around sports betting and could those resources be used to fund increased investments in early care and education. We’ve also offered our voice to the Louisiana Ethics Committee around childcare expenses for candidates running for office, because we want everyone to have the opportunity to run for public office and bring their voice to our legislative process.

For businesses of all sizes and individuals looking to help eradicate poverty in our region, what would you suggest they do?

I would say get connected to your United Way. Whether you’re a small business, or a large business with thousands of employees, we can help connect you to others, to really address the issues that are holding families in poverty. Everybody can be a donor. Everybody can be an advocate and lend their voice to our policy and advocacy efforts, or be a volunteer.    

How many volunteers does United Way of Southeast Louisiana have?

It’s in the thousands. I’ll tell you why. We run 800 workplace campaigns, and each has teams of United Way volunteers. For example, all the local refineries run United Way campaigns, along with companies like DXC Technologies, Avondale Marine and Hilco. Multiply 800 campaigns and three, four, five individuals, that’s thousands. Then we have a board, our board of trustees, our community impact committee, which is volunteers, our finance committee, product committee and campaign cabinet. We have a women’s leadership group of hundreds called Women United. We have disaster volunteers, volunteer ambassadors — so many ways to get involved.  

When you sit down with a business, how does that conversation go?

The conversations we’re having today are vastly different than they used to be. Where we start our conversations with businesses is looking at how we can help them accomplish their objectives. Can we be your internal community relations strategist? Can we offer you turnkey opportunities to do great work around philanthropy and engagement opportunities for your employees?

We know today that’s important. We know it’s important among employees within business to be civically and socially engaged and connected in their communities. We can help with that. We can sit down and craft very unique plans and strategies for businesses help them accomplish their goals, especially as it relates to their workforce development needs and their employee retention and engagement needs.

Are you hopeful for the future?

I think there’re a lot of great things happening in the region. The focus on education, the focus on career and technical education for children in Orleans Parish schools, the greater focus on early care and education, we just wrapped up Louisiana Early Ed week. feel like we’re headed in the right direction, and I feel like we’re making progress, but the systemic issues that lead to families struggling financially and in poverty is really, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. We have to be committed long-term as we fix systems and try to change generations to come. We didn’t get here overnight, and we won’t be successful overnight.


FAVORITES

Favorite book? “Make Your Bed” by William H. McCraven

Favorite TV Show? “The Big Bang Theory”

Who do you look up to? My mother

Biggest life lesson learned? Do not expect to receive something for which you are not willing to work hard and make sacrifices.

Best advice ever received? Fundraising is not rocket science. It is simply about people and relationships.

Hobbies? I have always filled my time with family and watching our two sons play sports. For the last 12 years I have enjoyed traveling to watch them play lacrosse.

Daily habits? About 5 a.m. each morning I feed our two dogs and two cats, have my coffee, watch a little Netflix and consider the possibilities that lie ahead for our United Way in the days, weeks, months and years in front of us.

Pet peeve(s)? Clutter, rudeness, negativity

What are you most looking forward to in the next year? I believe our United Way is at a critical tipping point and leaning toward a bright future and increased capacity to serve our region. I am most eager to engage our business leaders in an innovative way much different than the traditional approach of our past.


DID YOU KNOW?
The greatest expense for the average Louisiana family is childcare, which averages $996 per month for two children in licensed and accredited childcare — a $302 increase since the 2014 ALICE Report.


What Can a Business Do to Fight Against Poverty? Ask Entergy.

Sponsors of the ALICE Report since its inception, Entergy has been working to help struggling Louisianans for 20 years.

Patty Riddlebarger is vice president of social responsibility for Entergy, which includes 14,000 employees and 2.8 million customers in communities across the southeast and northeast United States. A big part of her job is helping the company battle poverty on all fronts.

“Two decades ago, our CEO, J. Wayne Leonard, (who passed away in 2018) looked at the fact that a significant portion of our customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi live just above or below the poverty line,” says Riddlebarger. “That’s when tackling poverty became a corporate cause for us.”

Entergy has been a sponsor of Louisiana’s ALICE Report since its first year and is on the national advisory council for the project.

“The ALICE Report should matter to all businesses because poverty impacts our entire community and drains our resources,” she says.

The United Way’s focus on ending poverty dovetails perfectly with efforts Entergy has been making for years, including creating a low-income customer assistance initiative that advocates for and provides funding for programs aimed at helping people become economically self-sufficient.

Entergy allows customers to choose when their bill is due and the company’s The Power to Care program provides emergency bill-payment assistance to seniors and disabled individuals in crisis. Riddlebarger says the program provides about $2.2 million in assistance every year.

The company also makes its voice known in the political arena.

“Next week we’ll be taking a team to Washington to make sure leaders know the importance of income tax assistance programs,” she says. “We partner with the IRS the United Way and other nonprofits in providing almost 300 income tax assistance programs which every year provide about 18,000 families in this country with refunds of between $2,000 and $6,000.

Workforce development also continues to be a priority for the company. In 2016, Entergy announced it was committing $5 million over five years to address workforce readiness in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. In New Orleans the focus has been on the tech and healthcare fields.

“In everything we do,” Riddlebarger says, “we look at it through the lens of how it will impact our low-income families.”


Facts from The Latest Alice Report

48% of households in Louisiana are not financially stable.

$11,800 The federal poverty line for an individual

$24,300 The federal poverty line for a family of 4

19% of Louisiana residents fall below the federal poverty line

$19,548 The average Household Survival Budget (calculation created for the ALICE report) for an individual

$53,988 The average Household Survival Budget (calculation created for the ALICE report) for a family of four

29% of households earn below the ALICE Household Survival Budget


 

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