Last month, GBPI staff continued our series of listening sessions around the state by spending two days in Athens.
We started our Tuesday with students at a health care certification program. These students—all women of color—had entered the program to be able to improve their financial security. Many were unaware until entering the program what financial aid resources they could qualify for. For them, this program was not a final step in their education but rather a stepping stone to other job opportunities. Some were able to take advantage of those opportunities even as students in order to better provide for their families.
In the afternoon, we met with another group of women hoping to improve their job prospects. These women were students at Athens Tech and recipients of funds via the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) program. They, too, encountered classmates who did not know about financial aid options like those provided via WIOA until after the program had started and it was too late to qualify. They were grateful for the excellent instructors and the aid they received, but still struggled with caregiving obligations and affording some classroom necessities.
Parents from H.B. Stroud Elementary met with us in the evening to share their hopes for their children as well as challenges they faced in meeting the sometimes-conflicting demands of caregiving and work. Small discrepancies in schedules—such as a 7 am shift start time, when the school doors do not open until 7:10—create difficult burdens. Parents want to be more involved in the school, but other responsibilities such as work or caring for aging parents can present barriers to attending school functions or otherwise connecting.
Throughout the day on Tuesday, we heard clear themes surrounding the challenges and opportunities in the community. In a city like Athens, education is paramount, and many participants were tapping into the city’s resources and educational institutions to improve their economic outcomes. One student told us,“I knew if I didn’t get some sort of credential, certification or licensing I was constantly going to be stuck in that poverty cycle.” Some had suffered from a lack of information about the resources available to them. Low wages, the high cost of education, lack of transportation options and the struggle of caregiving came up in nearly every session.
On Friday, we joined Family Connection-Communities in Schools of Athens, Envision Athens and other local organizations to share what we heard Tuesday and learn from groups on the ground. We met with Mayor Kelly Girtz, former Mayor Nancy Denson and community leaders working on economic development, education, workforce development, immigration and more. Once we shared our findings with them, we opened it up to discuss what they heard in their own work.
Similar themes again emerged. Many Athens community members struggle to access health care and need Medicaid expansion. They want better wages, but the jobs are not always there, even when they have adequate training. There is a sense that, while teachers and school administrators work hard to provide an excellent education to students, school funding does not adequately address the needs of low-income communities.
The participants worried about the state’s budget cuts. Such deep cuts in an already-lean budget can have big impacts in a community like Athens, as frontline workers charged with enrollment for safety net programs are stretched thin, investments in health care are paused and cuts to higher education may lead to tuition cuts. They had a deep understanding of the investments Athens needs from the state to thrive, and recognized that further tax cuts may just harm the community.
Overall, our meeting with local organizations echoed what we heard on Tuesday. Athens is a city of immense opportunity, but there can be challenges to accessing those opportunities. GBPI will continue to use these listening sessions to inform our research as we seek to understand the real-world impacts of state policy.