The Prosper Waco initiative moved forward this week, with community leaders and activists brainstorming ideas about how to educate and employ low-income residents to improve their financial stability.

The “wealth” and “employment” working groups met Tuesday with the city of Waco, Heart of Texas Goodwill Industries, Waco Independent School District and Caritas, among others, representing the different entities tasked with building financial literacy for families and finding employment for students ages 16 to 24.

Both working groups will support Prosper Waco’s financial goal of increasing the number of those living at or above the 200 percent federal poverty guideline from 50 percent to 55 percent by 2020. The 200 percent federal poverty guideline is $48,500 annually for a family of four.

The initiative comes after the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research report showed that almost 40 percent of people living below 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline are ages 35 or younger.

Those people have the potential to climb out of poverty with the right assistance, but often struggle to catch up with their peers, the report said.

“It is crucial that an employment pathway out of poverty is established to help individuals move forward,” the report stated.

The employment group will target the younger age bracket and help them gain financial security by providing work skills to gain and keep employment.

The group plans to assist either students or nonworking young adults by surveying families who frequent the local food pantries to find out why that demographic is not working. Officials then want to survey local businesses to find out what skills are needed to bridge the employment gap.

The group then hopes to take the data from the surveys and match applicants with service organizations for job training skills and interviews.

Officials also suggested requiring work-skills training for truant students and asking parole officers to suggest applicants for additional training.

Waco City Councilman Dillon Meek said he knows employers who have interviewed 30 applicants for an entry-level job only to discover none of them has the necessary skills to be hired.

Meek encouraged everyone to reach out to their local business friends to explain the mission of Prosper Waco and encourage them to use their businesses as a mission to help people out of poverty.

“We need business people here,” Meek said.

Financial literacy

The wealth group members discussed options on how to increase the level of financial literacy overall and help those in extreme poverty overcome smaller financial hurdles through alternatives such as the proposed community loan center to replace payday loans.

“We’re not talking about turning everyone into millionaires, we’re talking about helping families have a larger base for their households,” said Matthew Polk, executive director of Prosper Waco.

Officials suggested classes to improve residents’ “bankability.”

Many people don’t think banks are safe, said Milet Hopping, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Waco Public Housing Authority.

If they are forced to use a bank by their employer, they immediately go and withdraw all their money, she said. If they understood the importance of credit scores and how to avoid bank fees, they could improve their overall financial standing in the community, she said.

“We’re helping people along in a world that’s always changing,” Hopping said.

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