By Nana Ama Addo
In 2017, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported that almost 400,000 Philadelphians, who make up about 26% of the city’s population, lived below the poverty line. In 2019, Pew Trusts revisited Philly’s poverty issue and found that unfortunately, not much had changed.
As communities in Philadelphia and around the world struggle for basic resources like food, clothes, and shelter, FunTimes Magazine appreciates organizations that are working tirelessly to close this gap of disparity.
One of these organizations, United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, is a non-profit that works exclusively toward the goal of lifting people out of poverty.
FunTimes spoke to Dr. Nikia Owens, the managing director of financial empowerment at United Way during an interview for this article to learn more about resources available for community members during and after COVID-19, and to share the services they provide.
Dr. Owens is an education innovator, resource development and management specialist, counselor, researcher, human service and philanthropic professional. With a doctoral degree of Philosophy in Social Work Planning, Administration, and Social Science from Clark Atlanta University, a master’s degree of Social Work, and a Bachelor of Science degree from Howard University, Dr. Owens has a passion for helping people experience better living.
Her work ranges from teaching at the collegiate level, to research and statistics, addiction counseling, domestic violence survivor work, housing and food project management, probation officer work and education optimization. This California native is a testament to the potential one has in life. She matured in a challenging environment and accomplished remarkable achievements thus far without a safety net.
“I have a purpose and a passion for helping to make life a little bit kinder for individuals,” Owens said. “Having grown up in the foster care system myself and being emancipated at 17 years of age, I understand the gravity, in its direct and rawest form, of having to overcome significant obstacles in your life in order for you to achieve a certain measure of success, and to be able to give that to your children.”
She currently oversees the financial empowerment portfolio at United Way. From this vantage point, she invests funding in workforce training opportunities for impoverished communities to obtain employment and capital resources, build assets, and be empowered to grow from being financially healthy to wealthy, as well as pass on this wealth.
These resources are inclusive and assist communities’ members that live under 350% of the federal poverty guidelines, as well as non-citizens.
In leading the financial empowerment division, Dr. Owens provides investments and funding to high-quality organizations, so they are equipped to provide workforce training to vulnerable community members (i.e., returning citizens, who in Philadelphia, amount to 25,000 in number each year).
The division also invests in free tax preparation efforts in the Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey regions, preparing about 37,000 federal returns and 23,000 state returns that deliver over $47.5 million and save over $9 million for tax filers in tax filing fees.
At United Way, she also hosts asset-building initiatives, such as the Lubert Individual Development Accounts (IDA) match savings program for post-secondary students, first-time home buyers and small business owners, and the Family Empowerment Program. United Way also hosts career pathways and pipelines through the Job Opportunity Investment Network (JOIN) for young people who are disconnected from school and work.
COVID-19 has further emphasized the importance of Dr. Owens’ work and United Way’s impact. “My focus has always been on creating social capital, resources, access, and opportunities to support individuals and families to improve their financial health or financial wealth, or to evolve or increase their financial means. COVID-19 has magnified this because now we have a greater need,” Owens said.
“We (United Way) were already there so it allows for us to really help people in a real meaningful way during adverse and challenging times,” she continued. “It shows that we are timely, what we are doing is the right thing. What we have in place is important.”
Owens further described the intention and impact of United Way’s Family Empowerment Program
“The Family Empowerment Program (FEP) is designed to assist families who are experiencing housing insecurity and/or maintain housing stability,” she said. “FEP is to assist with getting communities sustainably housed. It is a whole family approach. Sometimes for people who want to rent, for $600, renters request first, last, and a month’s deposit in order for one just to move in. This can be expensive. That program can provide the necessary financial assistance for the family to meet that financial request. Even a 1 bedroom that is $700-$800+ is in a community that is not great.”
“An individual was sleeping in their car,” Owens continued. “We got them out of the car. Someone can be working and maybe they are living with their mom or sister and looking for a place, but not earning enough. They may call us and we will help them get stably housed.”
As United Way works with communities that are at different stages of vulnerability, various community members have the potential to benefit from their programs. Describing the IDA match savings program for first-time homebuyers and the many ways it aids communities, Owens said, “In this match savings program, communities can save $1,000 and we will match $3,000 toward the person’s postsecondary education. A lot of times we will help them get stably housed and then we help them work on their assets.”
“Because of rent volatility, if they purchase a house, they are typically paying $400-$500 less than they are renting,” she continued. “We have assisted hundreds of single moms and families by helping them purchase homes so they can have more of a stabilized job. It also increases their net worth and provides them with access to capital. We have experienced a significant increase in the program.” United Way’s IDA match savings program for small business owners assists small businesses in moving to their next phase.
“For the small business owners match savings program, once a business owner saves $1,500, we will match it with $3,000 — some use it to buy computers,” Owens said. “It really helps to elevate them. We also have a partnership with WORC and Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. They help program participants develop a business plan and budget while helping them gain access to other countless resources.”
United Way’s workforce programs, through the Job Opportunity Investment Network (JOIN), help varying communities gain access to just and sustainable employment opportunities that encourage career growth.
“Our goal is always a living wage,” Owens said. “We make sure we connect you to employers that have the potential to provide a living wage. Vulnerable populations, like a returning citizen, will have the ability to advance their employment. With some of our workforce programs, we pay them a weekly stipend and we pay for their transformation. If they complete the training at the end of the program they are guaranteed a job.”
“When we contract with different organizations in the community, we also try to ensure those organization are modeling what we believe in paying their staff a living wage particularly those who receive a significant contract where the funding can meet our expectation,” she continued. “For example, a person with a bachelor’s degree and no experience should be able to earn at least $45,000 a year with benefits.” All of these programs are available for communities in the Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey areas, and as the pandemic extends its impact on our lives, United Way continues its philanthropy.
The non-profit hosts a 211-information helpline that connects communities to their services of rental assistance, GED class assistance, utility assistance, workforce training, and more.
Dr. Owens has special advice for vulnerable communities during the pandemic and beyond. “If you are struggling, there are resources that have been designated to support you, whether it’s rental and/or utility assistance, and more,” she said. “There is assistance available to support many needs. If you are having difficulty, call United Way’s helpline 211 or the City’s at 311. The government has put money aside to support families and philanthropy has donated millions. It would be a missed opportunity for communities not to tap into these resources. If you don’t know where to start, I would recommend you contact your local representative.”
In stressing the importance of organizations like United Way pairing with media outlets like FunTimes for direct community exposure and encouraging communities to put their hand and help to work toward alleviating poverty, Owens said: “Nelson Mandela said ‘Poverty is a man-made problem like slavery and apartheid it can be eradicated.’ We have the ability to eradicate poverty. If all of us do our part, we can achieve that.”