Akron is among eight American cities awarded a national grant this month to tackle economic disparities that experts say widened along racial lines during the pandemic.
The National League of Cities, a support network for municipal governments with key members serving on Akron City Council, is giving Mayor Dan Horrigan $100,000 in technical support through its Equitable Economic Mobility Initiative. The 15-month assistance program will help the city and its partners in the fight against infant mortality to develop and implement strategies that help pregnant women and mothers overcome barriers to work, including transportation and child care.
The overarching goal is part of the Full Term First Birthday Greater Akron initiative, a local collaborative of public and private organizations formed in 2017 to reduce the alarming rate at which babies die before their first birthday in Akron. Infant mortality rates, which are worse in parts of Akron than anywhere in Ohio, are even worse for Black families.
Summit County Public Health reports that Black mothers receive prenatal care half as often as white mothers. And Black babies die three times as often from complications like low birth weight. The toxic stress of discrimination are thought to be driving factors.
Preliminary state data provided by the county health department show the overall infant mortality rate continuing to fall for Summit County, from 6 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2019 to 5.45 in 2020. The 2020 mortality rate for Black babies countywide was 11.15 (down from 15.4 in 2019) and 3.85 for white babies (up from 2.2 in 2019).
In Akron, the 2020 infant mortality rates are 8.52 per 1,000 for all births, including 9.67 for Black babies and 7.92 for white babies.
A holistic solution
Service providers who help at-risk pregnant women say safe housing is critical to birthing and raising healthy babies. Of 320 mothers surveyed last year in the Full Term First Birthday program, 59% cited housing as an issue.
But housing alone isn’t the answer. Mothers need steady incomes and stable careers to secure that housing. Of 237 women screened so far this fiscal year, which ends in September, half of the moms reported employment issues.
“We knew that housing was the key,” said Tamiyka Rose, Akron’s health equity ambassador. “But if you can’t find a job to maintain your housing, the work we were doing prior was for naught. So, we wanted to give them complete wraparound services.”
The $100,000 grant will help the Full Term First Birthday collaboration fill the gap by providing workforce training, interviewing skills, work attire, $200 gift cards for completing the program, child care, transportation and more.
To build the countywide workforce program, the city and its partners are looking to Akron’s Middlebury neighborhood, where the Well Community Development Corporation (CDC) is helping residents find jobs as the non-profit organization rehabs, rents and sells houses.
“Our goal is really to provide holistic community development,” said Kelly McHood, impact director at the Well CDC.
Building workforce programming
In late 2019, the Well CDC and 17 partners formed the Middlebury Workforce Coalition to “develop a strategy of what workforce development in this community could really look like,” McHood said.
Summa Health was an early and active member of the coalition. The hospital system is anchored on the edge of Middlebury, but few local residents in this poorer Akron neighborhood work at the hospital.
So, the Well CDC launched a pilot program to connect Summa with job-seeking neighbors. Five Middlebury residents landed a job with the hospital system after a one-day event in 2019.
The Middlebury Workforce Coalition, which includes Stark State, the University of Akron, Project Learn and the United Way of Summit County’s Financial Empowerment Program, then developed a job-readiness curriculum for a four-week program called Mothers In Motion. Last year, four residents graduated that program; three now work at Summa.
The Well CDC will run the program again, for all residents, starting July 26. Interested people can sign up by contacting Well CDC Workforce Manager Brenda Colter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-203-7016. Anyone seeking help through the Full Term First Birthday Greater Akron can call 211.
Working with conxusNEO and others, the Well CDC also launched Ohio’s first WISE (Women in Sustainable Employment) Pathways program last June. The five-week workforce development program will take another cohort of women in the next couple months, Colter said.
The WISE Pathways program helps underrepresented women find careers in information technology, construction, manufacturing and automotive sectors. McHood and Colter are looking to add another program for customer service careers.
Pandemic drives urgency
Full Term First Birthday Greater Akron members formed a multi-year strategy to streamline services, avoid duplication and lift the economic and health outcomes of expecting mothers, especially for Black women who are at greater risk of losing a baby.
The pandemic added urgency to the group’s efforts, which are expanding to provide workforce training that funding sources like Medicaid won’t cover.
“The pandemic was hard on everyone, but it exacerbated and put a spotlight on the disparities that already existed in our communities especially for people of color,” Horrigan said in announcing the new grant. “This partnership with the National League of Cities will help us to further address those disparities through our Full Term First Birthday Greater Akron initiative focusing on the social determinants of health.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that Black people were sickened and killed more often than white people by COVID-19. Local and national health experts cite poor social determinants of health, or the conditions of the places where people live, work and play. And local advocates like Rose, who advises the mayor on health equity issues, continue to push hospitals to examine racial biases in medical care, which could help explain why white high school dropouts are as likely to lose a child as Black women with advanced degrees, according to research.
The city said COVID-19 shook the economic stability of local families like no other recession. There was a “disproportionate impact on people of color, worsening existing inequalities.”
“This grant will help us financially empower all residents, especially women of color who have for too long been denied an equal opportunity to build wealth for themselves and their families,” Akron City Council President Margo Sommerville said.
Legislation accepting the grant was introduced Monday to members of council, including Ward 5 representative Tara Samples, who serves on NLC’s Board of Directors, and Ward 4 representative Russ Neal, president of the National Black Caucus of Locally Elected Officials.
Reach Doug Livingston at email@example.com or 330-996-3792.