AMES, Iowa -- As the recession takes another swing at Iowans in the form of 10 percent across-the-board state budget cuts, some in rural Iowa communities are taking action against poverty. They are participants in Horizons, a program delivered by Iowa State University Extension with funding from the Northwest Area Foundation of St. Paul.
Since 2003, Foundation support of Horizons in 36 Iowa communities has increased community awareness of poverty issues, increased leadership skills and provided a forum to develop and implement lasting change. Attitudes and opinions reflected in Horizon community action exemplify those expressed by responses to a recent national poll, also commissioned by the Northwest Area Foundation.
According to the poll, 63 percent of Iowans see more people struggling to make ends meet than a year ago, mostly because of circumstances they believe are beyond their control. Half of Iowa families (50 percent) have cut back on the amount they spend on food in the past year, including 59 percent of those with children under 18 at home.
Horizon communities are responding to food insecurity by increasing the availability of food for those in need. Local food pantries are being established or expanded, community gardens created, meals supplied for senior citizens and weekend backpacks provided to children who otherwise may not have enough to eat between hot lunch on Friday and the breakfast program on Monday morning.
Students in Hamburg, where 57 percent are on free and reduced lunches, have access to a backpack program – or weekend food pack as the children call it – because of Horizons. In Dunlap, the Horizons committee was so adamant about collecting food as they established a local food pantry that one member said, “You can’t go anyplace in Dunlap anymore without bringing a donation for the food pantry!” In its first four months, the pantry served 67 people.
Across the state, Iowans are helping out people they know. More than four in 10 (44 percent) say they or someone in their household have given or lent money in the past 12 months to someone who was struggling to get by, including 41 percent of those in the lowest income brackets ($35,000 per year or less). Iowans say they are willing to volunteer for an organization that helps people who are struggling (79 percent). More than six in 10 (63 percent) are at least somewhat willing to get more involved in their local government by attending meetings or contacting elected officials (18 percent are very willing).
Horizons participation has been the first step to community involvement for many. “People wanted to see the town make changes, but there was no mechanism to bring them together as a unified group,” said Pierre Kellogg of Grand Junction. “Horizons gave us the framework to make changes and helped us understand how poverty was affecting our community. It isn’t just a few; it’s a whole community getting involved, bringing new skills and knowledge to make a difference.”
Leadership training, part of the Horizons community education process, has led some to political service. In 2008, 10 communities reported newly elected leadership as a result of Horizon involvement. Horizon participants ran for leadership positions (24), were elected to city councils (nine), elected mayor (two), elected to school board (one) and appointed to economic development boards (two). These 10 communities also noted increased citizen involvement with city councils and consideration of the views of low income families before making decisions. Two additional communities noted increased representation of views at council meetings of those directly affected by poverty.
Barb Dobling decided to run and was elected to the Oxford Junction city council after participating in Horizons. “New residents and long-time residents have emerged, some as leaders, others as faithful volunteers. It all adds up to great community.”
Iowans are willing to roll up their sleeves, but they also are looking to elected officials and government to do their parts to help people facing tough times, according to the national poll. Four in 10 (41 percent) say the government does too little to help people who are struggling. Eight in 10 Iowans (78 percent) say their local elected officials are knowledgeable about the struggles people face in their community.
To learn more about Horizons and the Northwest Area Foundation, visit the ISU Extension Web site www.extension.iastate.edu/horizons.