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From our Fellows: Breaking down barriers to restore the American dream

The Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland’s fellowship, known as The Innovation Mission, is a powerful opportunity for accomplished professionals to advance their innovative ideas to change the trajectory of poverty in Cleveland. The five professionals we selected for The Innovation Mission began the fellowship in November 2017. We will be sharing their journey over the course of 18 months. Next in our fellows series: Julie Cortes, senior attorney at The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.


When we talk about the cycle of poverty, there are several barriers that prevent those in poverty from accessing the financial stability they need to thrive. One of the biggest barriers is finding and keeping employment.

Many factors, such as family structure, educational attainment, physical health, community connections, work-related networks and access to health care, predict and affect the economic status and mobility of individuals and families. But the heart and soul of the American Dream is employment.

More than one-third of Cleveland’s residents live in poverty. To overcome the condition of poverty, these individuals need income. In the state of Ohio, it is estimated that at least 20 percent of the population is underemployed, which includes those workers who are highly skilled but working in low paying jobs, workers who are highly skilled but working in low skill jobs, and part-time workers who would prefer to be full-time. Coupled with the unemployment rate, which has reached upwards of 7 percent in the last year, access to income is a real issue for Clevelanders.

Being employed is the key factor for economic security and mobility, and is crucial to avoiding poverty. The reality is, however, that for many people the path to finding and keeping employment with good wages, benefits, and the opportunity for advancement is often covered with a multitude of barriers, and in some cases these barriers are insurmountable.

In Cleveland, between 2011 and 2015 the median household income was only $26,150. The majority of individuals and families earn income through employment and data shows the direct correlation between full-time, year round employment and lower poverty rates. For example, in Ohio in 2014, the overall family poverty rate in Ohio was 11.3 percent, but that rate fell to 3.2 percent when the householder worked full-time, year-round. More of Cleveland’s individuals and families need full-time, year round employment or stable income.

One solution to creating and increasing employment opportunities for low-income Cleveland neighborhoods and individuals is through the development of low-income entrepreneurs and microbusinesses. New businesses create economic development within their neighborhoods, leading to new job opportunities. Low-income entrepreneurs, however, face their own unique set of barriers, including a lack of capital, access to credit and varying levels of financial literacy. Low-income entrepreneurs also need assistance with business plan development, management and legal issues.

Low-income Cleveland residents need alternative paths to stable income and economic security, and that’s where my project comes in. It is focusing on using the power of entrepreneurship to move people out of poverty.   I envision a low-income entrepreneur incubator or a “one-stop shop” designed to meet the unique needs of low-income entrepreneurs as they develop their businesses – businesses ideally aimed at eliminating or removing barriers to employment, such as child care centers, transportation companies, or businesses that support re-entering citizens. Entrepreneurs will receive the services and support they need to be successful as they start or grow their business, while ultimately creating economic development and job opportunities in their low-income neighborhoods.

I believe strongly that the key to economic security and mobility is sustainable employment, and I’m happy to have the opportunity to think creatively about employment for low-wage workers and the barriers to employment that they face. In this case, creative thinking may be the only way to success.

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Julie Cortes

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