The United Way, Bridging the Gap for Growing Number of Community Residents

For a community to be successful, it takes every sector. In Gainesville, the opportunity to add to a community already rich in higher education, developing a diverse employment sector is vital to the region’s ability to retain and recruit the nation’s best and brightest workers. While this issue of Business Report focuses on manufacturing, which is fast becoming a highly-sought after industry in American cities, the need to nurture multiple sectors in economic development is a critical ingredient to stemming rising poverty and to fueling additional resources for the struggling health and human services industry.

Many people probably already make the connection between the local economy and their community’s ability to provide critical assistance to those most in need, but some may not realize the the region’s ability to pay a living wage or to offer mid-career opportunities directly correlates to the number of people residing there described as the “working poor.” At United Way, we define this population as ALICE – Asset Limited, Income Constrained, (but) Employed. This critical and growing number of American workers is quickly becoming part of an embarrassing truth about Florida – the fact that 44% of the people who call the Sunshine State home cannot afford to live here. Over the eight years of gathering and tracking data about this population in published reports that examine the state’s 67 counties, United Way has found 46% of households in Alachua County don’t earn enough money to cover rent, food and child care. In surrounding counties, the percentages were the same or even higher. These people are often one emergency or one unplanned expense away from being homeless, right here in our vibrant, beautiful and prosperous community.

While the federal poverty rate has remained unchanged for decades ($24,240 for a family of four), the wages for working families has stagnated. Today, just to make ends meet, a family of four in Alachua county needs $53,064… and many people don’t meet that threshold so they depend on places like United Way to bridge the gap.

United Way is a critical part of connecting donors and volunteers in the community to the partner agencies who are serving families in crisis, helping children learn to read, providing rent and utility assistance or finding families a place to live. We vet every single applicant who applies for funding through our Community Investment Fund, and each recipient is required to go through a rigorous and transparent onboarding process before, during and while they receive funding. The partner agencies track their outcomes and report quarterly to United Way the progress of their funded initiatives. Of the more than 30 local programs that are funded by United Way, the average return on investment is 3:1 – for every $1 given, the programs bring in an additional $3 in state and federal matching grants.  

United Way is a solid investment in donor-directed funds but United Way cannot do it alone. Gainesville needs a strong, diverse, competitive local economy with jobs that serve all kinds of people. From the service sector to advanced manufacturing, Gainesville can be a place of destination for families who are seeking the highest quality of life. It was Mahatma Ghandi who said it best: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” #LiveUNITED

By Deborah V. Bowie, President/CEO of United Way of North Central Florida

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