The goal is big and simple: Get all Erie County residents – children, adults and seniors – to live better, healthier lives.
But it's often hard to know which ideas and strategies are making a difference, especially when so many community organizations run their own programs and have their own ideas about what works. Despite all the programs designed to make us healthier, Erie County ranks as one of the least healthy counties in the state.
"What we realized is that we were not tracking progress," said County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
So in conjunction with 43 community partners, with more expected to be added, the county is launching "Live Well Erie." It's not one program, idea or strategy. It has no fixed costs and no one owner. Instead, it's a framework for bringing the public and private partners together to brainstorm and coordinate strategies and to judge their effectiveness using community indicators.
"We need all hands rowing in the same direction, and I don’t think that’s something we’ve ever had," said John Craik, executive director at the Population Health Collaborative, who is co-chairman of the steering committee with Social Services Commissioner Marie Cannon.
Live Well Erie is designed to offer a measurable way of addressing deep problems over years and decades.
A few initial strategies include more early education training, having employers automatically enroll workers in retirement savings plans, and giving seniors prepaid debit cards for public and private transportation.
But those strategies are changeable. They will grow or be abandoned based on whether benchmark indicators show improvement over time in areas like child abuse rates, the percentage of working poor households, and the percentage of seniors with independent living difficulties.
Live Well Erie partners, so far, include major health and insurance providers; business, education and law organizations; and housing, transportation and human services agencies. They will meet at least quarterly. Poloncarz said he hopes the list of partners expands dramatically, as it has in San Diego, which pioneered the Live Well concept in 2010.
"I’m going to let the people who are experts in the field determine what works," Poloncarz said.
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Giving children a chance to succeed
Live Well Erie has three overarching visions for every life stage. That starts with children, who make up a fifth of the county's population. While behaviors like lack of exercise, poor diet and smoking eventually lead to diseases that cause half the region's deaths, the county effort focuses on the social conditions under which children and adults are born, grow, live, work and age. For children, that means giving them a stable home environment and educational support.
That's missing among kids who wind up at Compass House, a shelter for runaway and homeless youth, said Executive Director Lisa Freeman.
"Their family dysfunction starts from the day they’re born," she said.
Goal 1: A safe, stable community for kids
Strategies include: Expanding internet safety education; getting more organizations to recognize the impact of trauma in their work with families, and adopting a three-pronged approach with outside agencies to reduce gun violence.
Indicators: Abuse and neglect rates for county children; rate of firearm-related crimes.
Goal 2: Healthier children
Strategies include: Using county parks to promote fitness, expanding training for early childhood teachers, adopting best practices laid out by the National Collaborative for Infants & Toddlers.
Indicators: Rate of overweight and obese children; incidence of premature births.
Goal 3: Helping children achieve
Strategies include: Assessing availability of universal pre-kindergarten programs; convening stakeholder committees to review best practices and promoting "Mindfulness in Education" training.
Indicators: State standardized test scores in English and math; high school dropout rate/
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Empowering working families
Live Well Erie focuses on one particular set of adults – working ones barely living on a "survival budget," said Deputy County Executive Maria Whyte. This group includes 27% of Erie County families, who live above the federal poverty level, according to the United Way.
Providing help to these working adults means giving them better access to affordable housing, affordable child care and greater financial security.
"Just because a person has a job doesn’t mean that they can, in a qualitative way, take care of their family and their immediate needs," said United Way Executive Director Michael Weiner. "What are we, as a community, doing to alleviate some of those stressors and challenges?"
Goal 1: Providing safe, affordable housing
Strategies: Passing an affordable housing policy for projects receiving county tax breaks; educating planning boards on how to improve affordable housing options; creating a cooperative to fund low-interest mortgages.
Indicators: Percentage of "housing cost-burdened" families, based on Census Bureau surveys; number of housing discrimination and lead poisoning cases.
Goal 2: Greater financial security
Strategies include: Having employers automatically enroll workers in retirement savings programs; improving transportation to connect staff-thirsty employers with welfare recipients; creating a one-stop resource hub for for released inmates re-entering the community.
Indicator: Percentage of working households living above the federal poverty level but on a bare “survival budget.”
Goal 3: Affordable child care
Strategies include: Increasing awareness of available daycare subsidies; creating an easy guide to becoming a childcare provider; mapping existing child care centers so employers, health care providers and schools can provide parents better information.
Indicator: Capacity of childcare programs by type.
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Within the next 15 years, seniors in Erie County are expected to outnumber children. Though fewer seniors are poor, compared with other adults, they are less likely to be able to remain in their community, receive proper daily care, access transportation and be socially active. Helping them enjoy a higher quality of life and maintain financial security are priorities for Live Well Erie partners.
"Individuals are living longer, but just because they are living longer does not mean they are living a better quality of life in their older years," said Timothy Hogues, the former Erie County Senior Services commissioner.
Goal 1: Maintaining a social life for seniors
Strategies include: Expanding senior dining program options, and having the library system provide more technology training to adults to help seniors stay electronically connected to their family members.
Indicators: Percentages of seniors with an independent living difficulty, those 60 and over living in the same residence for at least a year
Goal 2: Accessible roads and facilities
Strategies include: Requiring senior housing and other public spaces to meet universal design standards; conducting a walking audit of county roadways; offering a “Connector Card” that gives seniors a subsidized, prepaid debit card for public and private transportation services.
Indicators: Miles of accessible streets; number of facilities that meet universal design standards. Benchmark data not yet gathered.
Goal 3: Lifelong financial security
Strategies include: A “Senior Homeshare” matching program where unrelated older adults can share a home and split expenses and enjoy companionship; expanding a county service that enables a representative to pay a senior's bills so he or she doesn't fall behind.
Indicator: Percentage of people over age 60 at or above 150% of the poverty rate