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Taxpayer Resources Unused, OCC Director Says

Dallas City Hall | Image by Victoria Ditkovsky/Shutterstock
Dallas City Hall | Image by Victoria Ditkovsky/Shutterstock

A City official said last week that nearly $500 million in taxpayer resources has gone unused by prospective recipients of social services.

This insight into what is driving poverty rates in Dallas was provided to City leaders on the Workforce, Education, and Equity Committee.

“We just got some preliminary research data from our partners … and I’m sure we’ll speak about this more extensively,” said Jessica Galleshaw, director of the Office of Community Care (OCC).

“But it’s looking like there’s probably as much as half a billion dollars in benefits left on the table in this community. I think it’s in excess of $400 million. So, there’s a lot of opportunity when you look at things like that, that can make a really direct difference in somebody’s life.”

The OCC provides direction and oversight of Dallas’ social, human, and supportive services to help create “equity” for seniors, children, and other residents. Those services include programs for seniors, children, and low-income individuals and families.

“So, if we’ve got benefits navigators, I mean, that sounds like a force multiplier … if that was a place to invest,” committee member Gay Donnell Willis (District 13) said. “But in just looking at these categories around food accessibility — and I know we have food banks — if you were to be given, you know, $500 million dollars and to say, ‘Where do I feel like, right now, if we invested in this one area, the yield would be so great?’ Dream. Tell us what you mean.”

Galleshaw’s presentation divides the drivers of poverty into several categories: decline in median income, lack of affordable transportation, lack of homeownership and high rental percentage, increasing number of neighborhoods with increased poverty, the number of households where children live in poverty, lack of education, high percentage of limited English-proficiency residents, high teen birth rates, and high poverty rates for single women who are heads of households with children.

“Every time we talk about the work that we’ve done in response to COVID and [American Rescue Plan Act], my recommendations would be things like the benefits navigator and food and … even the youth and early childhood and the mental health,” Galleshaw said. “Those are areas that we have put some funding into, and those are things that are going to be going away. We’re not going to be able to maintain the same level of investment.”

Still, stakeholders are effecting positive change, Galleshaw said.

“I think that we just want to maintain that because we’re serving hundreds of people. We’re making, really, a big impact. But I do have concerns about the benefits and making ways that people can get access to those types of opportunities that can help sustain them.”

Former Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings created a task force on poverty in 2016-2017 to identify the drivers of poverty. By 2020, COVID-19 lockdowns had exacerbated poverty in Dallas, prompting City officials to place an emphasis on “key areas of need from pandemic recovery — mental health, food, youth development, [and] client assistance.”

“This group met over the course of about a year and a half,” Galleshaw said. “They analyzed reports related to high incidents of poverty in our community. The big focus area was particularly related to children living in poverty. At the time, Dallas was rated either No. 1, 2, or 3, in terms of the percentage of kids living in poverty in our community. And, so, the task force came together to try to identify opportunities to make large improvements in that.”

The result was identifying the drivers of poverty.

“Between 2018 and 2019, this report and effort started to become embedded with various works in the City of Dallas,” Galleshaw said. “At that time, we had the Resilient Dallas Strategy that aligns with a transitional leadership here at city hall. … Even I would say the Office of Equity kind of, in a new way, grew out of some of the works initially identified through this report in 2020.”

The poverty rate in Dallas is about 17.5% — more than three percentage points higher than the Texas rate.

“Another area important to note is environmental justice, infrastructure, and public safety and wellness,” Galleshaw said. “We have a goal around environmental justice to address the disproportionate impact of pollution and climate issues. We have a goal around infrastructure to close those gaps, and we have a goal around public safety to make Dallas safe, to prevent hard, and to promote wellness.”

Committee member Jaime Resendez (District 5) asked Galleshaw to explain how poverty-reduction initiatives are being measured.

“We require reporting from each of our contractors,” she said. “We do have some core standard metrics that we ask people to track toward their measure, but we also ask for our providers to propose the specific metrics that best demonstrate the impact of their program.”

However, Holly Holt, OCC assistant director, said that it would take several more years to get a full picture of the City’s social services and programs’ effectiveness.

“The needle on whether or not we’re impacting all of those areas related to the drivers of poverty [is] going to take time,” she said. “It’s not something that can happen over even a 10-year period but something that’s going to happen over five, 10, 15 years.”

The next meeting of the Workforce, Education, and Equity Committee is scheduled for June 10.

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