Local leaders tend to split along ideological lines when it comes to ideas for solving poverty.
“I don't believe the government is very good at being the answer to these kinds of problems,” said La Plata County Commissioner Kellie Hotter. Charities are better at stretching a dollar, she said.
Durango City Councilor Christina Thompson, meanwhile, said government should be a more proactive part of the solution.
Social service officials also are divided on the issue.
Eve Presler, program director for Advocacy for La Plata, doesn't advocate for changes in government anti-poverty programs. The “discomfort” of the system's shortfalls discourages dependence on anti-poverty programs, she said.
The Rev. Andrew Cooley of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, meanwhile, called it government's “proper role” to provide an adequate safety net for the nation's poor.
“The government needs to do more and do it better,” he said.
The divide is predictable, said John Baranski, a history professor at Fort Lewis College who teaches a course on poverty.
“People's ideological perspectives color their views on poverty,” Baranski said.
It boils down to an argument of big government versus small government. In recent years, officials have repeatedly privatized and cut funding for government assistance programs, Baranski said.
He cites Section 8 rent subsidies as one example. The program subsidizes private market home rentals with cash payments for qualifying families to save government from having to build and oversee more low-income homes and apartments, Baranski said.
Locally, La Plata County government doesn't supplement federal anti-poverty programs with programs of its own as counties elsewhere sometimes do. Instead, officials award more than $2.5 million in public service agency grants each year to local charities. Officials in Durango have a similar approach.
Durango City Councilor Doug Lyon has argued that the city is already doing more than other cities of similar size with its community and block grants, and sees a smaller role for local government in the problem.
Thompson, meanwhile, argues government should be “one of many partners.”
“I don't feel we're adequately addressing local needs,” she said.
She said creative local solutions could be found, including waiving the city's minimum parking space requirements for child care organizations that serve the needy. She believes this could encourage new providers.
For County Commissioner Wally White, local government's most suitable role might be administrative, such as lobbying state and federal officials for change in federal programs or helping to compile and publish a resource guide.
Officials such as Hotter and Durango City Councilor Paul Broderick said they see local government's role in fighting poverty as much less direct.
“The role of local government is to create an economic environment that fosters productivity, job creation and wealth,” Broderick said. “That allows for others in society – individuals, nonprofits, churches – to come in and provide that social safety net.”
Hotter said, “Government cannot be all things for all people,” and nonprofits should take the lead.
“They can stretch the dollars farther and fill the gaps,” Hotter said.
Social service providers such as Durango Food Bank Director Sarah Smith, however, said they're left wondering where those dollars will come from.
County officials cut public service grant funding by $400,000, to $2.6 million, in their latest budget. Durango cut its community service agency funding by 33 percent to about $781,000.
And representatives for local charities said private and business donations have remained flat or fallen.
“The biggest hole in the net right now is an overall inadequacy of resources,” Cooley said.