United Way of the Midlands’ 2021 Community Assessment asked hundreds of residents of Calhoun, Fairfield, Lexington, Newberry, Orangeburg and Richland counties, “What kind of community do you want to live in?” The answers they gave will inform United Way’s investments and initiatives for the next three years.
United Way partnered with the University of South Carolina’s Department of Psychology to review data based on local, state and federal sources in relation to needs, gaps in services and opportunities for community investments to improve well-being within the six counties United Way serves.
With the desire to have volunteers and staff hear firsthand from residents and employees in these communities, United Way complemented this data-driven, quantitative research with qualitative research by conducting 40 community conversations and gathering feedback from more than 400 participants. Each community conversation was composed of up to 20 community members from diverse backgrounds who were selected by local hosts.
“The results we gathered from the community assessment made it clear that these are issues one organization cannot solve alone and will require a collective and collaborative approach,” said Sara Fawcett, United Way of the Midlands President and CEO. “We invite the community to see what role they can play in making lasting community change.”
From the data and information collected, United Way offers the following calls to action and hopes everyone can find at least one area they can support and work on:
Create a more unified vision for growth and economic development.
Various participants mentioned how vital it was to feel proud of their communities and have downtowns that thrive. They also noted that the ability to attract and retain businesses that can flourish economically will also assist in keeping young professionals in the community.
Recognize the impacts of the pandemic on us all by ensuring access to a range of mental health supports and destigmatize seeking care.
During these community conversations, participants expressed the isolation and anxiety caused by the pandemic. These sentiments tie into the Center for Disease Control’s data, revealing that two in five adults struggle with mental and behavioral problems connected to Covid-19. One Richland County resident added that “this pandemic proved we are a sick care system—not a health care system,” and the limited access to mental health facilities in Calhoun, Fairfield and Newberry counties showcases the need to destigmatize mental illnesses.
Expand opportunities for children and youth to thrive, including quality affordable childcare and after-school programs for older youth.
Multiple participants revealed they were living in a “childcare desert,” and expressed the need for cost, safety, quality childcare and non-traditional childcare hours to be considered when providing equitable childcare options.
To address the lack of resources for older youth, community conversation participants suggested creating recreational and cultural opportunities for middle school-aged youth, which would provide firsthand experience with people of varying backgrounds and expand their cultural knowledge.
Ensure a strong safety net with an intentional focus on addressing root causes of instability.
“People want to work, be good parents and be part of the community but sometimes they don’t get the chance,” said one Orangeburg County resident.
The 2020 Self-Sufficiency Standard, commissioned by the United Way Association of South Carolina, reviewed wages needed to support different family compositions and geographies based on the living costs without government assistance or subsidies. For example, for an adult with an infant and one school-aged child who’s living in Richland County, the adult would need to make $53,062 per year. Systemic change and the ability to address generational poverty were suggested to alleviate the financial stressors of supporting a family.
Support deeper collaboration across nonprofit and public sectors and inclusion of community voices.
In many community conversations, participants expressed their desire for nonprofits to partner or collaborate to solve issues, as some smaller nonprofit organizations struggle to maintain adequate resources to address their community’s needs.
Identify and work collectively to remove barriers to opportunity.
Reports show an unequal development economically in predominantly black communities, with lack of infrastructure and access to quality housing and fresh food being major barriers.
Additionally, “Grocery stores make assumptions about people based on their income level and have processed meats but no fresh fruits and vegetables,” said one Richland County resident.
Hispanic communities also reported the lack of access to housing and services and a generalized sense of feeling unwelcomed by service providers because they only provide materials in English.
Make housing affordable for everyone by increasing rental housing units at a range of pricing accessible for more people, entry-level homeownership and home repairs for vulnerable people.
The South Carolina State Housing Authority’s 2021 Needs Assessment shows that the cost of a two-bedroom apartment is not conducive to the average hourly wage in 40 of S.C.’s 46 counties. As young professionals enter the workforce, they are met with inadequate housing opportunities, so it’s difficult to retain and attract young professionals in less urban areas.
However, a Newberry County resident said, “People don’t want to admit that it happens in rural communities, but it does. Especially inadequate houses. We all know someone who stays in a house that looks abandoned and has no water or lights. If the neighbors know you, they will feed or clothe you.”
Support adults in upskilling and obtaining better-paying jobs.
According to Kids Count, 28 percent of children in South Carolina live in households with parents who lack stable employment. With over 180,800 jobs in SC that require advanced skill sets, participants stated the imperativeness of residents’ accessibility to resources so they can continue to support their families and complete these programs.
“Kids having parents who are economically stable is the best way to have stable children,” said a Newberry County resident.
Findings from the assessment will assist United Way in creating a new Community Investment Plan this spring with its priority areas of work throughout the organization’s six-county footprint. United Way will also engage community partners and leaders to work together to address all the findings in this report. Read the full report here.