Elected officials tend to view poverty as a purely financial issue. Often, plans to address economic inequality start with goals like growing small businesses, raising the minimum wage, or creating more jobs. Though these are admirable approaches, they can ignore the structural barriers that prevent people from rising out of poverty. In Summit County, Ohio, however, a team of elected officials, government agencies, local organizations, and residents are taking an alternative approach to increasing upward mobility. They are focusing on cultivating autonomy and belonging—two of three upward mobility dimensions in the Urban Institute’s Mobility Metrics Framework—through the strategic planning process.
A three-pronged approach
After reviewing Urban’s mobility metrics alongside current events, including the COVID-19 pandemic and an increase in gun violence by young people, Summit County determined juvenile justice and mental health were policy areas that influence upward mobility and have room for improvement. The county took the following three-pronged approach to ensure its strategic planning process addresses these priority issues and empowers residents and that it provides multiple opportunities for community input and collaboration:
- Hold focus groups with mental health and juvenile justice organizations. Summit County hesitated to prioritize juvenile justice and mental health without first hearing from the community, so it collaborated with the local consulting firm Synergy to host focus groups. During these gatherings, Synergy representatives asked a diverse set of local organizations about their work with juvenile justice and mental health, as well as how poverty and inequality affect these areas. The focus groups’ conversations illuminated issues ranging from the stigma around depression to the inaccuracy of juvenile policing data.
One conversation about juvenile justice highlighted the lack of awareness of family support programs. For instance, after a youth organization expressed concern that young people receive support only when they are in the system, the court responded by explaining that it already offered prevention resources for young people and their families. The organization countered by stating that community members can’t access such services if they don’t know about them. The court later conceded that it could improve how it informs the public about its services. This was just one experience from the focus groups that illustrates how convening key players in Summit County can help improve residents’ well-being.
- Survey residents, including an oversample of people experiencing poverty. Along with tapping into the experience and expertise of local organizations, Summit County needed to understand the living conditions and opinions of residents—especially those experiencing poverty—related to mental health and juvenile justice. The county worked with the Akron-based Center for Marketing & Opinion Research to survey residents and oversampled people whose incomes fell at or below federal poverty thresholds. Most residents indicated that substance abuse, gun violence, juvenile delinquency, and stigma around mental health were significant problems in the community, with the oversample adding that the relationship between residents and police was also problematic. Additionally, residents struggling to make ends meet said they experienced poor mental health almost twice as much as residents at large and felt much less safe than residents at large.
- Establish an advisory board. While the survey data were being collected, Summit County convened the Upward Mobility Coalition, an advisory board of more than 22 organizations and residents recommended by the focus groups. The county and Synergy continue to host monthly meetings with coalition members, who are helping to guide the creation and implementation of Summit County’s Mobility Action Plan (MAP). By sharing their insights, personal stories, and professional experiences, members have provided valuable direction for the county’s MAP. So far, the coalition has cocreated the plan’s goals and strategic actions and several stakeholders have agreed to carry out its strategic actions.
Throughout the effort to boost upward mobility, Summit County has sought to work with the community. It will continue this commitment by holding additional focus groups with young people who are incarcerated, surveying residents about the strategic actions outlined in the MAP, and meeting periodically with key leaders to review its implementation.
Whether in Summit County or elsewhere, finding diverse ways to engage with the community is crucial not only to building a strategic plan that accounts for unequal power dynamics but also for ensuring the planning process values multiple levels of community input. Local governments must be willing to cultivate autonomy among residents and organizations to advance shared decisionmaking. By adopting this practice, county leaders, including those in Summit County, can ensure their strategic plans are effective, inclusive, and realistic for the communities they serve.