May 8, 2009 — Nonprofit organizations, businessmen, senators and heads of a dozen government agencies met on St. Croix Friday, putting their heads together to come up with a store of ideas and suggestions for solutions to the problem of family and child poverty in the Virgin Islands.
Gov. John deJongh Jr. held the "Summit on Poverty and Economic Opportunity," in conjunction with the National Governors' Association, who provided a facilitator to help moderate panel discussions. The Governors' Association funded the summit with a $12,000 grant as well.
"At the end of today's meetings and sessions, I hope we will have come to a consensus on both short range initiatives and long term approaches to reducing poverty levels and increasing economic options for the families in the Virgin Islands," deJongh said in his opening remarks.
The keynote speaker was Jodie Levin-Epstein, the Deputy Director of the Center for Law and Social Policy. Levin-Epstein has written extensively on working conditions, paid leave, workplace flexibility and their impacts upon lower income workers. Her 2006 report for CLASP, "Targeting Poverty: Aim at a Bulls Eye," describes and identifies recent efforts around the nation to set targets for the elimination or reduction of poverty. Though a visitor, she offered up her share of ideas into the hat.
While the Virgin Islands has large problems, it also is a small place, making it ripe for novel or innovative approaches, she said.
"Just maybe because you have such an enormous problem, you could be a place to showcase or replicate some of those successful programs and solutions that support families I've been talking about," she said. "You could show off to the nation when you add to the body of knowledge on how to address poverty and solutions that work."
Some small efforts could attack several problems at once.
"Off the top of my head, to toss in there, how about being the bicycle state?" she said. "You have an obesity problem and you also have a public transportation problem and need job creation. What if there was a new bike path?"
With a bike path used by residents and visitors alike, the government could promote training in bike repair and the opening of bike shops.
"With bikes for the elderly and bikes for families, you could show off, create jobs, cut obesity, provide transportation and tell the nation how you did it," she said.
Levin-Epstein shared several more suggestions, and though she added the caveat that they were simply ideas, endorsed experimenting and trying things that might be outside the box.
"Government needs to take risks and realize not everything tried will work or work well," she said. "But we need to get out there and say 'I'm willing to try something and fail at it."
After Levin-Epstein spoke, the conferees split off for panel discussions on specific topics, from adult education to housing. Panels of government and nonprofit specialists gave their insights into the territory's problems, with conference attendees asking questions and adding their comments, while moderator Susan Golonka of the National Governors Association and assistants gathered and organized the suggestions.
The grant was applied for through the Children and Families Council, a public-private interagency council, formed by the governor to ensure that early childhood programs and services are better integrated and coordinated, and generally improve children's services. DeJongh established the Children and Families Council a year ago. (See: "New Council Aims to Improve Services to Children and Families.") Chaired by first lady Cecile deJongh, it consists of members from various government agencies as well as other representatives from the broader community.
The council's broader mission is ending the cycle of poverty among families with young children in the Virgin Islands within the next 20 years.
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