Definitions of poverty usually center on income, but research increasingly shows that living in poverty affects more than people's pocketbooks -- which is one of the reasons it can be so difficult to overcome.

Living with limited resources can alter people's mindsets, cognitive abilities and even physical health, attendees at Friday's Bridges Out of Poverty training learned. People at or below the poverty threshold must operate more often in "the crisis of the moment," and struggle with planning more than their counterparts in the middle or upper classes.

"When we think about culture, we think about countries, we think about ethnicities. But really, there is a culture of money," Jennifer Etherton, a certified Bridges Out of Poverty instructor, said as she set up for class at the McCracken County Cooperative Extension office. "Getting your head around why people (in poverty) do what they do is great, not just for our community partners, but truly for anybody."

The United Way of Paducah-McCracken County holds the Bridges Out of Poverty training once a quarter in an effort to help people and organizations address poverty in a comprehensive way. The curriculum, based on the work of researcher Ruby Payne, also includes topics such as mental models, causes of poverty, hidden rules, family structure and more.

"I like that Bridges Out of Poverty fosters understanding. Understanding people, being compassionate with people -- I think those are really important things," said Etherton, a former teen parent who was able to cross socioeconomic lines.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 17.1% of all individuals, and 24% of children younger than 18, lived below the poverty level in McCracken County in 2017. The nationwide poverty rate that year was 12.3%.

United Way has offered the Bridges training for nearly a decade, said Anne Bidwell, community impact manager at the United Way.

"We know this has worked over the last nine years. We want to make a renewed push to make sure our employers are getting here," Bidwell added.

The nonprofit recently announced it would follow up on 2012's Impact Poverty study by working to engage more area employers in the effort to reduce local poverty.

"We definitely want employers on board with us and speaking the same language, understanding the same things, because we're all going to need to come to the table with our unique experiences and expertise to try to fill this gap in our community," she said.

The United Way and other community stakeholders released the Impact Poverty study in 2012. It set forth a detailed, 10-year plan to improve outcomes in income, education and health for local residents, and the community has managed to meet several of the study's stated goals. Employment is the one area where meaningful gains haven't been made, the nonprofit said.

The response from local businesses to the nonprofit's June 4 Impact Opportunity meeting has been "gratifying," Bidwell said, with new attendees signing up for the June, September and November training.

She added that developments in the business world also indicate local companies are on board.

"Just as a broad base, some companies are having discussions about providing child care, and possible bus routes," said Heather Pierce, project manager at Greater Paducah Economic Development.

Pierce said she attended the training in order to understand, from an employers' perspective, how poverty may affect their businesses.

"In the economic development world, I need to understand all those challenges that employers have to deal with every day," she said.

For more information on the United Way, or to sign up for an upcoming Bridges Out of Poverty session, visit unitedwaypaducah.org/bridges-out-poverty.

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