Human services administrator responds to needs assessment

BURNHAM – Residents of Mifflin and Juniata counties are struggling with a reality that agencies aren’t addressing, Allison Fisher, director of human services for the two counties, said at the Lewistown Rotary meeting Tuesday.

“There seems to be a huge disconnect between what folks actually need and what our agencies are spending money on,” Fisher said. “That’s why it’s so important to look at statistics and understand what people are really facing.”

Fisher is referring to the most recent community needs assessment, conducted between 2011 and early 2013, which reflects three main areas that require attention: education, health and income.

Some of the sobering statistics include: poverty rates of 10 percent and 15 percent for Mifflin and Juniata counties, respectively; 21 percent of adults don’t have a high school diploma; only 10 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher; and 14 percent of adults in Mifflin County and 16 percent of adults in Juniata County are uninsured.

“The amount of work we have to do in our community to make positive change can be daunting,” Fisher said. “But we have to start somewhere. Issues with health and education will remain unless we begin to affect the poverty level.”

So, for example, Fisher said, instead of working to bring jobs into our community, we need to focus on getting people higher wages capable of supporting a family. A family with two working adults, earning minimum wage, earn $32,000 a year, when the local cost of living is actually $44,000, she said.

“The misconception is that if we bring in more jobs, poverty will go down,” Fisher said. “But our unemployment rates average at 7.4 percent. That means that the majority of people are working, but with low wage jobs that keep them in poverty.”

Additionally, poverty levels double when it comes to children, which directly relates to the education level of the parents, which directly relates to the parents’ job obtainment, Fisher said. In fact, the number one indicator of childhood poverty is the educational level of the mother, she said.

So, once again, almost everything depends on the level of education in a community, Fisher said. Unfortunately, out of 498 school districts, schools in the Juniata Valley rank 432 with a drop-out rate of 26 percent, she said.

“The reason kids drop out of school is because they don’t like it,” Fisher said. “And when they’re living a life in poverty, why should they? Everything takes a back seat just to make it through the day. We have to change the reality of kids dealing with poverty before education even begins to mean something to them.”

The next step for Human Resources is a series of strategic planning sessions to address major issues as it applies to education and income, Fisher said. Community health needs are being handled by Lewistown Hospital.

“We plan to hold a number of focus groups and community meetings around these findings” Fisher said. “Then we will publish the documents for public view and take steps forward to improve our communities.”

So far, Human Resources has identified 16 emerging priorities to address within income and education. Examples include: reading proficiency scores; childhood poverty rates; drop-out rates; opportunities for living wage; education and training programs; and workforce incentives.

Fisher challenges individuals and organizations to get involved. Something as simple as becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister, teaching Sunday school, volunteering in classrooms or donating to student food programs can make a difference.

“If we want change in our community we have to make it happen,” Fisher said. “My belief is we can change anything if we start small, but we have to start.”