PEABODY — Living in Essex County isn’t cheap.
A family of four needs to earn $79,000 to make ends meet. But about 300,000 people — 38 percent of the county’s residents — make less than that, according to the Essex County Community Foundation.
For those families, working more than one job might be the norm. They might struggle to save for emergencies, or pay for educational expenses, child care, rent or food. Financial stress weighs on single parents, the recently unemployed, disabled adults, military service members, minimum wage earners and two-income families.
In response, the Essex County Community Foundation, through its Impact Essex County initiative, is spearheading a three-year project to combat income inequality in the region.
“This effort is designed to tackle the issue of income inequality as a real struggle here in our community,” said Beth Francis, the foundation’s president and CEO, to hundreds of local and state officials, nonprofit leaders and business people gathered Tuesday in the Wiggin Auditorium at Peabody City Hall.
The project, called Empowering Economic Opportunity, invests $1.3 million in four collaborative programs from 2019 to 2021 that will be rolled out over the next six months.
“We found successful efforts that with an investment could be scaled county-wide,” Francis said.
The first effort, a Credit for Prior Learning program in partnership with North Shore Community College, launched last month. The program helps adult learners gain college credits for skills and experience they already have, lowering their college costs and reducing the time it takes them to graduate.
The foundation says the program could save new students an average of $1,600 each.
Northern Essex Community College, Middlesex Community College, Salem State University, Gordon College, regional workforce investment boards and English as a second language providers are also part of the effort.
Patricia Gentile, president of North Shore Community College, said census data shows an estimated 90,000 adult workers on the North Shore, many of them low-wage workers, have some college credits but no degree. NSCC, she said, has expertise to help people “complete their degrees in a timely and affordable way.”
“With a flexible approach to demonstrating that competence under the umbrella of Credit for Prior Learning and through assessment tools comes the increased likelihood of greater numbers of learners completing a degree,” Gentile said.
A second initiative, which will begin in the spring, unites the county’s five Community Action agencies to teach basic financial literacy skills, helping people to manage their money and stay out of debt.
“It’s a really successful program that’s operating in Haverhill right now and we’ll be expanding that in all of the other four,” Francis said.
The United Way’s Financial Empowerment Learning Institute will provide tools and training to help the agencies establish financial coaching practices.
“United Way is excited to partner with ECCF to bring this work locally as part of the financial coaching and financial literacy initiative of Impact Essex County because we too share the concern that financial coaching is not available in every community in this region,” said Brigid Boyd, vice president, communications and public affairs, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, in an email.
For businesses having trouble getting a loan, Mill Cities Community Investments and other nonprofits and municipalities will work together to create a Small Business Resiliency and Venture Fund. This fund would offer microloans of less than $100,000 along with technical training and support to help these businesses grow and create jobs. This effort expands a successful commercial lending program in Lawrence, one that was also expanded after the Merrimack Valley gas disaster last fall.
Last is Essex County Think Labs, an open dialogue to share ideas and expertise and foster collaboration among stakeholders to come up with creative ways to help make an impact. Topics may include workforce development and the creation of opportunity zones.
The approach is “community defined, not foundation defined,” said Stratton Lloyd, the foundation’s chief operating officer and vice president for community leadership.
“We are not inventing programs, we are not making new rules,” Lloyd said. “We looked at the expert organizations, what’s here and what’s working.”
In an interview, Francis said the foundation, which oversees more than $70 million in charitable assets for people who donate to the foundation, has raised about 60 percent of the money. The foundation also plans to raise $10 million in endowed funds to continue this work in the future.
“It really is a way to bring funders together, nonprofits who are doing good work already, that just need some investment.” Francis said. “If we could invest in them and work together within the system around that issue, we could really move the needle.”
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.