Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.
— Helen Keller
“When are you going to write about something that makes people feel good?”
This question came my way over last weekend, asked by a friend who at least claims to read what I write in this space each week. It was a good-natured (I think) way of ribbing me about my tendency — or, as I think of it, for better or worse, my duty — to write about the ill effects of the prevalence in our community of poverty, inequity and political dysfunction.
My immediate — and, as many of my friends undoubtedly would agree, characteristically piquant — response to my friend was to quote the late, great Johnny Cash. In 1971, Cash released a song called “Man in Black,” in which he explained his general choice of onstage garb, the source of the nickname that gave the tune its title.
Over the course of eight verses, Cash offered an answer to the question of why “my appearance seem[s] to have a somber tone,” saying, “there’s a reason for the things that I have on.” He sang of “the poor and beaten down…the prisoner who has long paid for his crime…the sick and lonely old…the lives that could have been.” He touched on the toll taken on the American soul by the scourges of racism, drug abuse, religious intolerance and needless wars.
Cash acknowledged that there are “things that never will be right,” and that “things need changing everywhere you go.” But while he held out the hope that America could do better, that the day would come when his sartorial choice would lose its symbolic value (“I’d love to wear a rainbow every day/And tell the world that everything’s okay”), he was resolute in his determination to “carry off a little darkness on my back.”
‘Til things are brighter, sang Cash, I’m the Man in Black.
All of which is to say…well, two things, really. First, that I freely acknowledge that I’m no Johnny Cash. And second, that I do feel some responsibility for reminding folks who read this newspaper and visit Weld’s website that Birmingham has some deep-rooted problems that all of the Railroad Parks and Lyric Theatres and craft breweries and fine dining establishments in the world cannot fix.
Nor are they supposed to, I hasten to add. I’m not calling for denigrating any of these things, nor anyone’s affection for them — least of all my own. They are signifiers of positive growth and development, and — potentially, hopefully — harbingers of a dawning civic maturity in which the ultimate outcome of Birmingham’s growth and development is a broader and deeper distribution of community wealth and the greater opportunities to which that wealth can open doors.
In the meantime — ’til things are brighter, if I may — we should be encouraged and inspired by the work being done by those individuals and organizations in our community who toil daily to make that happen. It’s especially pleasing to learn of occasions when those labors bear significant fruit.
I learned of just such an occasion last week. In fact, the news from The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham was on my mind over last weekend, when my friend upbraided me for my alleged bias against good tidings. At that point, I kept it to myself — mostly out of friendly spite, but also because I knew I’d be writing about it this week.
Here, a little pertinent background is in order. In Birmingham and Jefferson County, the dream of homeownership is more elusive than in most places. That’s especially true among women — contrary to recent national trends — and most especially among single mothers with families and other female-headed households.
According to figures provided by The Women’s Fund — founded in 1996, the organization works on several fronts to create and expand opportunities for moving women and their children out of poverty — 44 percent of Birmingham area households headed by women with children live below poverty level. In Jefferson County, only 51 percent of families headed by single women live in a home they own. Such statistics indicate one of the largest single obstacles to moving women out of generational poverty, says Women’s Fund CEO Jeanne Jackson.
“One of the largest assets any woman can have is the home she and her family live in,” Jackson says. “The economic security that homeownership can provide is a critical means of attacking poverty at its root.”
In 2013, the Women’s Fund received a $420,000 grant from the office of Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (the funds were part of the $4 million Alabama received from the national mortgage settlement in 2012, to provide relief for distressed borrowers). With that money, The Women’s Fund, in collaboration with the United Way of Central Alabama and Greater Birmingham Habitat for Humanity, began an initiative aimed at increasing the number of low- to moderate-income single female homeowners.
Last week, The Women’s Fund released the first figures relative to the “Stepping into Homeownership” program. The program provides participants with a two-to-one match of individual savings of up to $2,000 toward the purchase of a home or the pursuit of higher education.
All told, since the launch of the Stepping into Homeownership program, 78 families headed by single women have purchased and moved into their own homes, representing total assets of $5.4 million. Meanwhile, 79 women have saved a total of approximately $112,000 toward down payment of a home or higher education expenses.
As part of that continual building effort, the three-agency collaboration has developed Homeward (homewardbhm.com), an interactive website aimed at connecting women to homeownership opportunities and local financial resources. The site was launched last March, and to date, nearly 5,800 individuals have completed financial sessions on Homeward.
Homeward assists users in identifying their personal financial obstacles and points them toward resources for overcoming them. It includes information on how to save money and establish and maintain a household budget, as well as a range of homeownership-related topics, such as home-buying seminars, credit counseling, foreclosure prevention and debt management.
“There’s actually lots of information and help available for low-income working women,” Jackson observes. “But we wanted to find the most effective ways of connecting women to those services. We did a survey to determine the best ways to reach that audience, and found that social media is highly effective. That led us to create the website.
“In all of this,” Jackson adds, “the objective is helping women to build assets and develop the skills they need for financial self-sufficiency. The results we’re seeing are pretty phenomenal, something we can continue to build on.”
Working for the betterment of Birmingham by working to improve the economic prospects of our less fortunate citizens — by connecting people to opportunity. And not only working at it, but producing real results.
I don’t know about you — or the friend who upbraided me for my dark outlook — but that’s the kind of news that makes me feel good.