Sarasota: A glimpse into American poverty’s future

Tanysha Curry
Tanysha Curry
Photograph by Amy Kaslow

Wearing Hello Kitty scrubs, waist-long braids, and a broad smile, 27-year-old Tanysha Curry steps out of her front door. She gingerly pulls out papers from a notebook and displays them on the concrete walkway: a diploma for a certified nursing assistant course and a perfect attendance award. “It’s the first thing I have ever finished,” she says, beaming.

The odds certainly weren’t in her favor.

Curry and her three young daughters are one of 1.2 million American households living in the nation’s public housing projects. Their Sarasota, Florida home is in the Newtown area, a strip of attached ground-level units connected by common walls and generations of families. Outside, residents sit on their front stoops. Beer cans and fast-food wrappers litter the shared yards, and battered cars fill the driveways. Clothing lines seem to be the liveliest outdoor elements, with garments flapping in the wind. “We hear the sirens and gunshots at night, and the helicopters overhead,” Curry says, referring to the search teams looking for gang and other criminal activity across this blighted part of town. She sees plenty of trouble during daylight, but keeps a low profile. “I mind my own business. Around here, snitching brings retaliation.”

Curry grew up here. Her mother did, too. So did her grandmother, and her great grandmother. It’s a legacy that Curry rejects, and she’s determined to leave as soon as she can. Her family’s story offers a window into the challenges and turbulence of moving through each day among America’s working poor, but it also demonstrates the potential for positive change with community support.

The Currys’ back door leads to a shared courtyard surrounded by dozens of homes built in a U-Shape. Her three girls, 4,7 and 9, bunch up behind her as soon as she reaches for the door handle. “They want out,” Curry says. “But it’s against the rules to go outside without me. There’s just too much to worry about.”

Indoors, curtains are pulled for privacy and lights are dimmed to keep the electricity bill low. The children squint their eyes as they move outside into the bright sun. Across the lawn, a group of male teens and twenty-somethings are talking. “There was a shooting here Saturday night,” Curry says quietly, “and those guys are up to no good. They’re having a meeting to decide what they’re gonna do about it.”

Curry’s mother Taffy, who was busy in the kitchen frying fresh catch from a nearby canal, joins her daughter and granddaughters outside. “I’m the bomb,” she says, sporting oversized sunglasses and a half toothless grin. She often visits to watch the children while Curry is at work and, like the many millions of other grandparents helping to look after their children’s children, she relishes her role in her daughter’s success. With her arms draped around the girls, Taffy says, “She couldn’t do it without me. She knows I’m watching her babies.” But this grandmother’s dependability is not a given; she’s long dealt with addiction and jail time. Years ago, Taffy worked for a brief period as a cashier and soon stopped. “Once she got used to not working, she never went back,” her daughter says. The instability only increases Curry’s drive to leave this all behind. “If I just stay focused, the faster I can achieve and get my kids out of here.”

Curry is attempting to climb out of the steep gap between those with marketable skills and those without. And she’s part of another profound divide: the decades-long age difference between people like her, just entering the workforce, and the mature, experienced post-50-year-old population. The average age in Sarasota is 53.3 years, 16 years ahead of the average age of the rest of the rapidly aging nation. Demographically speaking, Sarasota is the United States’ oldest large county (over 250,00 residents). How government, business, and foundation leaders tap into older Sarasotans’ talent and resources to help younger, low- or no-income citizens like Curry is becoming an economic trademark of this region.

Sizing up the obstacles

At her clinic not far from where the Currys live, local physician Lisa Merritt ticks off the many challenges Newtown faces. “I’m still the first black doctor they’ve ever seen. They don’t have a frame of reference. So few black people are in the professions, the absence, the invisibility is a statement.

“There is so little opportunity just to get housing, you can imagine what they are up against trying to get a job, or simply an education. It’s challenging to prove that working hard and pushing against entrenched social and economic boundaries has a return on investment.”

Merritt shifts her long, lean body forward to press the point: “Here, you cannot get around the obstacles: incarceration rates have decimated black communities leaving whole areas and neighborhoods where there are no men.”

A Georgetown and Howard University graduate, Merritt directs Sarasota’s Multicultural Health Institute. Part doctor, part community activist, her practice extends far beyond medical treatment. She mentors 20 kids and counsels adults and guardians “who have no idea how to access proper medical care;” she conducts workshops on wellness, diabetes, and HIV-AIDS; and she leads a monthly cross-mentoring program for seniors and teens where adults impart wisdom and encourage initiative and the youth show them how to use technology, from social media to medical alert systems.

Exercise, Merritt says, is nearly impossible: Newtown’s streets “are too dangerous for walking,” and drug-filled parks make recreation prohibitive. Eager to build the community’s will to take its public spaces back, Merritt and Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DePino recently co-hosted a forum on crime, the fear of crime, and relationship building that puts a premium on dialogue and mutual accountability.

Opting for a holistic approach

Sarasotans invested in change contend that for the poor to move beyond survival mode, they need a wraparound strategy, rather than one-off or isolated services. Sponsoring coaches and neighborhood youth to play sports without securing the outdoor areas is as pointless as it is to subsidize daycare for job searching parents without offering transportation to the child center, or to underwrite job training for work that doesn’t exist.

A record percentage of Americans are convinced that federal anti-poverty programs are not effective, according to a 2015 Gallup survey, marking the worst show of confidence since the firm started measuring this sentiment in 2001.

Gulf Coast Community Foundation, one of the county’s major philanthropies, avoids stand-alone programs. The foundation pays meticulous attention to data mined from reports and surveys on the population, the economy, education, jobs, talent, healthcare, and the environment. Gulf Coast produces Community Indicators detailing hunger, skills shortages, and a wide array of other measurements related to wellbeing to make funding decisions, and it puts together performance assessments to determine whether to continue funding programs.

The foundation supports programs for early childhood intervention, nutrition, after school programs, neighborhood safety, financial literacy, parenting skills, just-in-time training for higher wages, and job placement. “We funded the largest hunger study of children that’s ever been done in the U.S.,” says Gulf Coast Senior Vice President for Philanthropy Veronica Brady. The All Faith’s Food Bank, which is supplied by Walmart, stocks food pantries countywide, including in schools, where families learn about nutrition.

U.S. poverty rates have seen dramatic increases since the metric was first established in the 1960s. And they’ve been spiking since the 2007-2009 recession, given the weaknesses in the labor market. As the population grows, the percentage of Americans who are among the working poor, unemployed, or lacking job skills grows faster. Today, a quarter of the U.S. population qualifies as working poor.

“Look at the employment rates among African American youth—the rates are always double digit,” says Merritt. “You can go to school, get the grades by studying hard, but the schools are always inferior. You come out and you don’t have the skill sets.”

How can Newtown’s schools help the latest generation of students? Educators at the neighborhood’s Alta Vista Elementary School have found some answers. Principal Barbara Shirley adopted an Aspen Institute initiative called “Two Generations, One Future,” designed to simultaneously engage children and their parents in practical skills, with the twin goals of academic success and job readiness. Shirley viewed the program as a natural fit for this county, where the number of locals registering for food stamps has soared 200% in the past eight years and where almost half of those at or below the poverty line work full and part-time jobs.

Curry’s children attend Alta Vista Elementary School, which has one of the poorest and most diverse grade-school populations in Florida (94% of the 500-plus students receive free or reduced lunch, a dramatic increase from 78% in the past six years). Teachers often stuff students’ backpacks with food on Friday afternoons, a “make-do” practice of many educators working with at-risk students countrywide.

Frustrated that saying goodbye to students for the summer meant losing them to poor nutrition and bad habits, Shirley appealed to the county school superintendent: “I told them that the long summer break just doesn’t work for Title One schools,” she says, referring to the category of K-12 institutions that qualify for federal assistance for the poor.

The board of education agreed to try an extended school year, reaching far into the summer months. It was a litmus test for the rest of the state, and it has delivered promising results. The seven-week-long Eagle Academy summer session, now in its fifth season, turns out students who are relatively rested and nourished.

Shirley pushed further, securing county and community financing to set up a free “Parent University” and job training programs for adults in the school community. Leaning on Aspen Institute claims that there is a “a strong link between maternal education and outcomes for children … education that includes skills development linked to high-demand jobs with opportunities for advancement,” Shirley’s team designed curricula targeting local industries hiring new entrants: office support, trade skills, and culinary arts. Scheduled during school hours, the classes don’t merely dangle future career possibilities but instead offer immediate employment upon completion. Shirley asked the local Red Cross to teach a seven-week Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) certificate course, and the small graduation ceremony doubles as a job fair—employers attend and hire on the spot.

Shirley says her “staff is full of problem solvers” who train and attend workshops to address weaknesses they see everyday. They teach adults English as a Second Language (ESL), financial and computer literacy, and give them guidance on the academic, social and emotional development of high-risk children. As in poor districts all over the country, Alta Vista Elementary School saw minimal parent involvement as the heads of the school’s 500-plus families scrambled to meet the children’s daily needs. But now with year-round classes for adults and their kids, the school is a constant in family lives, and it is fast becoming a community nexus. Alta Vista staff now serves upward of 350 dinners per week to parents. Parents “are more confident, more trusting of the school,” Shirley says, and “more open to each other.”

Interest in the intergenerational Alta Vista approach is infectious, reports John Annis, vice president of Community Foundation of Sarasota, another major philanthropy in the area. A highly charged man who speaks in a hurry, Annis is constantly in the field, visiting grant recipients and making tracks though the donor world, where benefactors step up with ideas, money, and time. A well-conceived project can quickly morph from an idea to action with donor-advised funds. Anxious about Newtown’s community policing problem, longtime social activist and philanthropist Robert Bernhard, 89, told Sarasota’s police chief and Annis that he wanted to help finance greater black participation on the force. That was a few months ago and the police department is already vetting possible new minority recruits.

Annis wants to capitalize on Sarasota’s growing community of senior citizens. “We have a lot of smart people who have retired and done a lot of great things and we’re showing them how they can help.” There’s room for more. The Corporation for National and Community Service calculates that roughly a quarter of residents volunteer their time and talent, ranking Sarasota a low 62 out of 75 mid-size cities across the country. Putting opportunities within the community’s grasp often means deploying “grey” talent – older professionals and retirees – to teach, train, and trouble shoot.

For Tanysha Curry, everything is within reach. It’s accessibility by design, not coincidence. Funders and program directors know they cannot expect the people they work with to succeed without proximity or public transportation options. The children’s school, her new job at the dialysis clinic, and her GED program at Suncoast Technical College are within walking distance or a short bus ride away.

Across from Phat’s Barber Shop and a convenience store is Suncoast Technical, where twenty, thirty, even forty-something students work toward a high school degree. Most come in at a fifth-grade level, and they study one-on-one with retired professionals. Family, work, and school are a lot to juggle, but Curry is “a role model for other students,” says math tutor Mark Morin, one of the 27 senior volunteers at Suncoast Technical. A wall of announcements has a brag board with a local news article about Curry’s CNA achievement. She’s already set her sights on becoming a registered nurse, which would offer a significantly higher salary. Both the Community Foundation of Sarasota and Curry’s new employer have promised to pay for her nursing degree, which requires a two-year associate’s degree or hospital-based training.

Anything but a simple feat

Curry is one of the 100 million-plus Americans who juggle both work and some sort of learning – formal seat time courses for credit, informal training, vocational prep, self-directed study. Gaining CNA credentials to secure a job opened her eyes to what’s possible: CNA to GED to RN. She still lives below the poverty line, as do half of all Sarasota residents with a full or part-time job.

Driving through the Newtown housing complex, Curry points to a neighbor hanging wet clothing out to dry. The two were in the same CNA program, but “she gave up … she dropped out,” she sighs. A group of girls pass by, one pushing a stroller and another with her newborn baby sleeping in a harness strapped to her chest. “She’s 20, and she’s got two other kids at home,” Curry says. “The more babies, the more food stamps she can collect. It’s a real incentive for people to have kids.”

Curry’s own mother conceived her at 13 years old. By the time Curry was nine, she began a long and increasingly intense period of drug abuse, she got into fights, and was, by her account, extremely aggressive. She was a regular in juvenile court. “The first time, I was scared,” she recalls. But not the fifteenth, or the thirtieth time before the same judge. She became inured. “When I left detention, I knew I’d be back. I’d wave to the other girls still inside and say, ‘see you next time.’” She’s matter of fact about her past and contends that nothing about her background is extraordinary, adding that plenty of other kids from the projects get into this sort of trouble, or worse.

Can Curry’s success sway others? “All of us are affected by our peers,” says Harvard University’s Lawrence Summers, an economist at the center of the ongoing American political debate over inequality. “When one young person is helped to be on a path toward stable and productive employment, rather than crime, that opens influences … with his example, many, many others who in turn do better influencing each other and still more people. Like a pebble thrown into a pond, each successful act of social inclusion has reverberations that magnify its impact. “

Once a notorious troublemaker who “had all of Newtown behind me,” Curry is now a different kind of standout. She’s uncomfortable with the long looks from Newtown residents when she returns home after work. What she impatiently articulates, others might find offensive: government assistance takes the edge off of poverty—with heavily subsidized housing, welfare, food credits, and more—but Curry argues that it does far more harm than good by providing the basic minimum for people who lack the drive to do more with their lives. “They don’t do much of anything, all day long. They don’t think they have to.” Since the U.S. government declared a “War on Poverty” in the 1960s, many trillions of federal dollars have gone into basic caring and keeping of the poor, with little invested in mapping a way out. “Not only is it a crutch,” says Curry, “it’s a really bad environment.”

And although Sarasota’s unemployment rate has been edging down, numbers don’t really capture the discouragement—the long period of slow or no-growth that has sidelined people from the job search. “If you haven’t had a job for years, basically, you’re rewarded for not working. If I have to up my education so that I can get a better way to live, I’m going to do it.”

Engaging more people like Curry will require smarter investment, says Summers, a former Treasury secretary and head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. “With the half of our population that is not realistically on a path to college graduation,” he says, “it is what we do for them that is likely to define the success of our society over the next generation.” He points to the public schools, “but it is equally about what happens adjoining the public schools:” That includes pre-school, after-school, summer school, and the transition from school to work.

Summers points to the research of his Harvard colleague Raj Chetty, whose seminal work with other prominent economists spells out the impediments to economic mobility. Their ongoing Equality of Opportunity Project has found that, for low-income children, the most important factors in attaining a higher standard of living as an adult come down to spending their childhood years at quality schools, in a two-parent household, and being part of a community with high civic engagement and a higher income population. Chetty’s latest finding: the sooner this at-risk generation moves into a more stable environment, the better, because every additional year a child spends in improved conditions translates into a higher return for them as adults. Children in public housing have the weakest prospects, while the outlook for those in Section 8 subsidized housing is slightly better; both are bested by the potential of children who have moved into low-poverty areas.

Curry seems to know this well. She was excited to find a letter in the mail from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), informing her that she was among the latest lottery picks for Section 8 housing. Her hopes were quickly dashed when she learned she has a three-year wait. If the Harvard study is correct, the three Curry daughters stand an improved chance of adult success if they are raised in a less threatening world with better schools, more economic activity, and a stronger community. But Tanysha Curry has to get there first.

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