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Center for Engagement and Community Development

Social Capital Gives a Voice to Families in Poverty

In Kansas alone, 18.4 percent of children currently live in poverty. This is a trend that has been increasing for the last decade, according to the State of the Family report. Combined with a reduction in publicly-funded safety net programs, many Kansas families struggle to stay afloat.

Statistics show us that families in poverty is an ever increasing problem in the state of Kansas, but conversations with the families themselves puts a name to a face. That’s the idea behind Dr. Elaine Johannes’ and Dr. Gregory Paul’s CECD engagement incentive grant.

Johannes is associate professor of the department of family studies and human services. Paul is an associate professor of the department of communication studies. The proposal, “Bridges for Kansas Families: The Role of Social Capital in Kansas Families Living in Poverty,” is designed to engage impoverished families in a community conversation.

Both have their own individual experiences that drew them to this work. Paul was drawn to this project following his work on a previous CECD-funded project that focused on building supportive communities for youth. The discussion made it evident that any efforts to build supportiveness and resilience needed to address issues of poverty.

Johannes’ story is a little different. Her and her family faced bankruptcy and lived in situational poverty for about a year. “I learned a heck of a lot about resiliency,” Johannes said. “I have a personal motive, because the people I met during that experience were wonderful, colorful, and perseverant.”

The project, which began in July has involved collaborating with several local networks whose mission is to understand and reduce poverty. Manhattan’s organization is called Thrive!. “Thrive!… is safe and respectful,” said Johannes. “People are living outside Thrive! everyday sloshing through things, dealing with bias… people come to Thrive!, and they know that we’re equal.”

The idea behind this community conversation is to increase awareness regarding the challenges of families living in poverty. “There is a lack of information and understanding about the lived experiences and perceptions of social connectedness among poor families,” wrote Johannes in the proposal. “Especially those families who are struggling through safety-net program reductions and limited living wage jobs.”

“Understanding poverty is like trying to grasp a fish,” said Paul. He said the stigmatization of the poor as lazy and as having little to offer creates a vicious cycle in which they become overlooked and marginalized, which simply reinforces the stigmatization and cycle of poverty. One way to break this cycle is to facilitate conversations that grow our understanding and attention to the causes and consequences of poverty, the ways we talk about poverty, and the ways we can engage in constructive communication.

This project will take off with a series of interviews with adults and adolescents to enhance the voices and social capital of adults and adolescents living in poor households.

The next phase involves equipping community partners with the necessary resources K-State has to assist those in poverty. Then, university members will collaborate with community partners in order to respond directly to the issues that impact families in poverty.

The final phase of this project takes the findings to the Kansas Poverty conference in July 2017 and national meetings and presentations.

“Ideally this will create something that people will read and reflect on together,” said Paul. “Being able to take… the data and write about it in a way that will resonate with different audiences.”

This unique take on understanding poverty will engage the community and university in a solutions-based method. “This project will engage family members and community partners - who often go unseen and unheard - to address the social issue of family poverty and its impacts,” wrote Johannes.

To learn more about this proposal, view the Engagement Incentive Grants Awards.