RIBAUDO: Destination poverty | TahoeDailyTribune.com

RIBAUDO: Destination poverty

It hit me when I was sitting in a Pathway 2007 regional plan meeting. Someone was showing a series of beautiful Lake Tahoe pictures on a screen – you know the ones; we have all seen them. At the time I was struck with the incredible beauty of the lake that we are known for, but I also knew there was another side to Tahoe that never makes it to a slide show or meaningful discussion for that matter. Those beautiful pictures contrasted with what many visitors don’t see, and what many in our community choose not to see – the level of poverty and poor housing that many in our community experience. It is a cruelest of ironies that here we are in one of the most beautiful places on Earth with local poverty that holds too many in our community in its ugly grip.

What we have not seen enough of is the slide show of poverty and its impact, the picture of the poor housing, the crowded living conditions, people standing in line at Christmas Cheer; where have those pictures been? The issue of poverty within our community is one we can no longer ignore; it needs to be solved. That means taking a hard look at more than giving your own money to a worthy cause. It requires us to look at the policies we have had in place in this community that have contributed to the situation and change them.

There is no doubt the issue of poverty has come into sharper focus with the decline in the national economic picture, but it is too easy and to convenient to blame the current situation on the economy and leave it at that. We have all contributed and enabled poverty along the way with poor policy decisions, over-regulation, bad business decisions and an overall failure of local government that has sapped the will of the local community. How bad is it? The poverty numbers in our community are mind-numbing:

• A loss of 9,500 residents lake-wide between 2000 and 2008.

• The unemployment rate of South Shore has reached almost 20 percent, according to the Employment Development Department.

• Almost 70 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunches at the elementary school level.

• The Lake Tahoe Unified School District reports 250 homeless youths in 2010. Douglas County is reporting more than 144 homeless youths.

Simply put, these numbers and this situation in our community is unacceptable. For too long the conversation has centered solely around protection of the environment and improving the local economy to the exclusion of policies that impact the local community, and we now see the results of this conversation. We must recognize that every policy at the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the Forest Service, Douglas County, El Dorado County, Lahontan and the city impacts all of these areas. None of these organizations can any longer have the luxury of making policies in a vacuum.

The private sector, too, has contributed to these problems. Oftentimes the focus is on short-term gains at the expense of long-term value, and when that fails someone new comes in to cut costs (typically jobs and benefits) that has contributed to the problem.

When you look at it in its totality, the collective impact of bad policy and bad decisions has had a devastating impact on the local community, and we often don’t see the impact. When the economy slows, who gets hurt? Those who can least afford it. It’s those with low income, women, minorities and, sadly, it’s children. We must do better.

We must move forward with solutions that balance the environment, the economy and the local community. Imagine if we had a thousand feet of clarity and we still had an unemployment rate of almost 20 percent. Would we be satisfied as a community? I would hope not. The same is true if we had no unemployment and the Lake’s clarity was 50 feet. The eco-elite argument of the environment at all cost put forward by environmental special interests for all these years has become ridiculous in light of the current situation. You can protect the environment, you can have a sustainable economy, and you can enhance and support the local community. We need to implement a vision that addresses all these issues.

Perhaps the best way to develop new policies and strategies is to start by recognizing the problem and its impact. On Oct. 8, for the first time ever, the “South Lake Tahoe Poverty to Prosperity Forum” will be held to highlight the issue of poverty in our community and to identify strategies that we can implement to hopefully reduce poverty by 50 percent in the next 10 years. If you have an interest, I’d urge you to attend. To register, visit http://www.eldoradocapc.org.

For too long the issue of poverty has been dealt with just by organizations like Tahoe Youth and Family, the Women’s Center, school districts and law enforcement. It’s time it becomes everybody’s issue.

– Carl Ribaudo is a contributing columnist to the Tahoe Daily Tribune. He is also a consultant, speaker and writer who lives at the South Shore. He can be reached at carl@smgonline.net. Read his full column and additional blog posts at http://www.tahoedailytribune.com/CarlRibaudo.

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