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Kalamazoo leaders convene to discuss the fight against poverty

one woman speaking into a microphone to a crowd. man in suit to her left
Jessi Phillips
The panel included (L-R), Chris Sargent of United Way, Elizabeth Washington of the Northside Association for Community Development, Kevin Ford, of Shared Prosperity Kalamazoo, and Sarah Klerk, of the Kalamazoo Promise. The talk was moderated by Michael Horrigan, President of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, and took place at the Catalyst Center in Kalamazoo.

Representatives from four local groups led the panel discussion at a W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research community breakfast.

Poverty levels have declined in the City of Kalamazoo over the last decade, but are still higher than in the U.S. overall. Local groups shared some of their efforts to address poverty at an Upjohn Institute-led event Wednesday.

The panelists included Sarah Klerk from the Kalamazoo Promise, Kevin Ford from Shared Prosperity Kalamazoo, Elizabeth Washington of the Northside Association for Community Development, and Chris Sargent of United Way of South Central Michigan.

Sargent talked about the need for more jobs that pay a living wage.

“Job creation alone from our perspective isn’t valuable,” he said. “We have to talk about jobs that provide living, sustainable wages, with benefits. Otherwise, you know, what happens? The city and the nonprofit sector subsidize. And we're subsidizing, all the time, jobs that are not paying living and sustainable wages.”

According to United Way, a family of two parents with two children in child care needs a combined income of $31.45 an hour for 40 hours a week to get by in Kalamazoo County.

The event also discussed poverty disparities between the county and the city, across racial groups, and in different neighborhoods.

Washington is the newly appointed director of the Northside Association for Community Development. She said not all neighborhoods have seen the same amount of progress on poverty. She discussed the need for more workforce training locations in those neighborhoods.

“The idea is, how can we bring training to the neighborhood, so that those first levels can get done easy,” she said. “So people can then move to that next opportunity, and then next one, and the next one.” 

Ford discussed the need to focus not only on jobs and wages, but on closing the racial wealth gap.

“Income and wages are important,” he said. “They are an important ingredient to building wealth. But they fluctuate over one working lifetime, and they are more volatile. Wealth is stickier, period.”

According to the last census, the poverty gap in the city is improving. But while 24 percent of white residents live in poverty, the number is closer to one-third for Black residents.