Chemung County Poverty Reduction Coalition

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chemung County Working to Address Poverty

Working with Cornell Professor Tom Hirschl: In 2011, in recognition that a large percentage of people live in poverty in Chemung County, especially in the city of Elmira, Executive Director Andrew (Andy) Fagan of Cornell Cooperative Extension, agreed to participate in a small research project. The project spearheaded by Cornell University Professor Tom Hirschl focused on community leaders’ perceptions and experiences related to poverty. This project included asking community leaders to complete a survey and monthly conference calls where Prof. Hirschl shared updates on his research as well as allowing several CCE Directors to share what was happening in their communities.

Established Chemung County Poverty Reduction Coalition: Andy identified the need to increase awareness and understanding of poverty and wanted to make a positive difference, so he leveraged the few thousands of dollars from Prof. Hirschl’s project to hire a VISTA Associate via an agreement with the Rural Health Network of South Central NY. The VISTA helped CCE Chemung establish the Chemung County Poverty Reduction Coalition. Leaders and community members who worked with and/or had interest in learning about poverty participated in monthly meetings. An average of 15 organizations began meeting to learn, to share and to network. In 2013, a second VISTA Associate continued to meet with the Coalition with a focus on identifying the needs, available resources, and actions to reduce poverty. The group project that year focused on supporting community gardens. In 2014, a third VISTA Associate was hired and the work focused on clarifying basic needs, individual needs, and community needs and the group tried to work toward identifying community resources and creating a poverty reduction plan.

Poverty Stoplight: In 2015, Carol Houssock, CCE Chemung staff member and Director of the Chemung Volunteer Action Corps, did a google search and found the “Poverty Stoplight,” a poverty reduction program developed by Dr. Martin Burt, CEO of the Fundacion Paraguaya. Carol and Andy reached out to Dr. Burt who was excited to talk with them. Both liked that the “Poverty Stoplight” is both a tool and a methodology, which matched perfectly with the work and goals of the Coalition. Recognized by the United Nations as an effective strategy for reducing poverty, the Poverty Stoplight is now in more than 30 countries. Dr. Burt agreed to work with CCE Chemung and the Coalition members. He came to Elmira and presented to the Coalition and greater Elmira community. CCE Chemung applied for an Appalachian Regional Commission Grant to develop and implement the Poverty Stoplight in the poorest census tract in Elmira. It took some time, but CCE Chemung received the grant late in the fall of 2017.

In 2018, our Poverty Stoplight Initiative, now called Move Forward Elmira, officially began. It is the second Poverty Stoplight project in the USA. The first was in New Orleans. With the help of the Coalition members, Carol and Andy developed 51 indicators for the Poverty Stoplight Elmira survey tool. The indicators cover six dimensions of living and are things that people can easily understand and can assess. For each indicator, a family selects whether they have what they need, some of what they need, or none of what they need.The responses are color coded green, yellow, and red. Families complete the survey on a computer tablet and the responses saved to a secure file.

The goal for the ARC grant was to survey 100 households over the summer and then again six months later. In addition to completing the survey, families create a “life plan” by identifying 4-5 indicators that they are ready to move from “red to yellow” or “yellow to green”. To help them, Progress Partners (a volunteer helper or community partner) provide a list of community resources and contact information directly related to those indicators. The Progress Partner also follows up to see how the family is doing and offers additional suggestions or referrals if necessary. The expectation is that families will make progress on their goals and/or the results will show what is or is not working in the community. Families will assess what is working for them. The collective survey results will be shared with the Coalition and the ESPRI-Elmira Taskforce. These groups will then look for trends and assess if community resources utilized by families are effective.

Unfortunately, there have been some technical difficulties as the Fundacion develops a more uniform platform, which have delayed implementation of the Poverty Stoplight surveying and therefore have extended the expected timeline through the middle of 2019. However, the upgrades to the technology will allow people easier access to the survey and help the Progress Partners reach more people more quickly.

Natural Leaders Initiative and ESPRI-Elmira: As part of the ARC funded program, CCE Chemung also worked with CCE Tompkins to offer the Natural Leaders Initiative Training, a leadership program, which Margo Hittelman developed specifically to attract low-income and minority individuals with leadership potential. In Tompkins County, the program has run for more than a decade and has resulted in increased community engagement and leadership of low income and minority people. Recognizing the need for and the value of the program, CCE Chemung secured an additional $5,000 needed for the program from the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative – Elmira Taskforce. They offered NLI-Elmira from Feb to June 2018. Fifteen people participated, primarily low-income and minority people from Elmira. Graduates were encouraged to become involved with the Move Forward – Elmira program by taking the Poverty Stoplight survey and as Progress Partners. One of our graduates now works for the Chemung Department of Social Services as a Community Resource Navigator at one of the three community hubs created through ESPRI-Elmira. The navigators are now active members of the Coalition, which still meets monthly with representatives from CCE Chemung, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, Corning Community College, the Salvation Army, Elmira College, ARC of Chemung, AIM Independence Center, Steel Memorial Library, the Chemung County Department of Social Services and Health, and more.

International Conference in Paraguay: In 2018, Carol and Andy were invited and attended the “Cerrito 2018: Poverty Reduction Conference” in Paraguay, representing the CCE Chemung and Cornell Cooperative Extension. The conference brought together community leaders from across the world to share and to learn. Andy participated in a panel discussion about using multiple indicators for measuring poverty.

Plans for 2019: In order to help increase awareness and understanding of the Poverty Stoplight survey, all Coalition members and CCE Chemung staff will complete it.Coalition members will sign on to become Progress Partners and/or agree to train their staff to do so. The primary focus will be the low-income families in Census Tract 6, but having more people engaged with the tool will increase the number of people understanding its value. Poverty is relative and that there is value in everyone completing the survey, even if all of their answers are “green.” The process helps people be mindful of what they have and what could change in their life to turn a “green” to “yellow” or even “red.” CCE Chemung has applied for a second ARC grant to extend the survey to 200 more families in two additional poor census tracts in Elmira. CCE Chemung has received funds from the Community Foundation of Elmira-Corning and the Finger Lakes, Hilliard Foundation, and Chemung Canal Bank for the required match. Surveying will continue and results gathered and assessed to see if the Poverty Stoplight works. We were notified in September that our grant application was approved.

CCE Poverty and Economic Hardship Program Work Team: Professor Hirschl and Andy Fagan co-chair this statewide working team, which evolved out of Prof. Hirschl’s research project. More than 20 CCE educators and executive directors participate in a monthly zoom meeting with the goals of increasing knowledge and sharing best practices for reducing poverty across NYS.

For more information:

Andy Fagan, Executive Director, CCE Chemung and CCE Tioga

E-mail:; Offices 607-734-4453 or 607-687-4020

Carol Houssock, Administrator, CCE Chemung, Office 607-734-4453 Ext. 215

Last updated September 24, 2021