Partnering to solve economic and health disparities in Pittsburgh

by Cain Hayes, For New Pittsburgh Courier

Black Americans have progressed considerably, especially in the areas of education and wage increases. However, we still lag far behind when it comes to accessing certain economic opportunities, especially in Pittsburgh.

A recent report from Pittsburgh’s Gender Equality Commission found high occupational segregation in blue-collar jobs and fewer Black girls attending colleges compared to their peers in other cities. The report also found Black adults have higher rates of maternal mortality, homicides, cancer and heart disease.

A vicious cycle of poverty, unemployment and lack of access to educational and career opportunities creates a bleak scenario for the overall health of the Black community. These circumstances are driving Black residents out of our city. A recent study in the National Bureau of Economic Research found that diversity highly correlates with increased economic development. If Pittsburgh wants to continue to grow and develop and fulfill America’s highest aspirations, it’s essential we retain our Black residents.

Therefore, the status quo in Pittsburgh cannot continue. This city houses many elite academic, healthcare, financial and cultural institutions. We all need to come together to dismantle the barriers that prevent our Black residents from acquiring education, housing, jobs and quality healthcare.

Collaborating with local organizations to support the community

As the first African American CEO of a multi-billion dollar company in Pittsburgh, I am committed to effecting change through action. The company I lead, Gateway Health, a leading managed care organization, believes total health and wellness cannot be attained by simply providing access to healthcare. In addition to physical health, Gateway addresses behavioral health and socioeconomic challenges for our 320,000 members in 37 Pennsylvania counties.

We do this by partnering with hundreds of local, non-profit organizations throughout the state that have the expertise and capabilities of addressing the needs of the community. We don’t just write checks at Gateway. We are proud to also get involved at a grassroots level. Our dedicated associates are volunteering their time and facilitating deep connections between our members and the organizations that will help them get back on their feet.

It’s tempting to read the Gender Equality report and want to solve the glaring problems it highlights ourselves. However, there are many passionate people who are already doing the work and need our time, money and resources in order to make a bigger impact.

For example, the Urban League is an organization dedicated to enabling African Americans secure economic self-reliance. As part of their mission, they have spearheaded the “Bank on Greater Pittsburgh” initiative to develop pathways for Black residents to access basic, low-cost financial services and financial education. The program negotiates with banks and credit unions in local communities to assist low-income unbanked and underbanked people with free or low-cost starter or second chance bank accounts. This means that these people can utilize traditional financial products and services, which are the first steps in saving, building credit and planning for a stable financial future.

The Pittsburgh Promise started with a mission of encouraging Black male students—who historically as a group have lagged in academic performance—to boost their grades and school attendance so they can receive scholarships for postsecondary education. They have since broadened their scope to include scholarship eligibility for all urban youth, which in turn fuels a prepared and diverse regional workforce. Since its inception, they have given approximately 9,500 students more than $141 million in scholarships. But only with the help of contributions from companies like Heinz and American Eagle.

Connecting our members to meaningful jobs

At Gateway, we believe that a key to breaking the cycle of poverty is education. People who receive a high school diploma earn an average of $9,000 more per year, so we proudly offer GED coverage as a value-added benefit for our members to help them take the first step in accessing better job opportunities. But we can go further.

Additionally, through Gateway’s participation in Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services’ workforce initiatives, we’re able to proactively bring employment-related opportunities directly to our members. For example, we work with Pittsburgh’s Reemployment Transition Center (RTC), which specializes in work placement for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and SNAP recipients. The program offers resources such as interview workshops and one-on-one sessions with employment consultants and job developers. We also help members find employment by working with community partners such as the Builders Guild and Financial Counseling Centers. We do this because we know that financial and physical health are inextricably linked.

Coming together to address these opportunities

I know we are not alone when it comes to charitable giving and corporate social responsibility. Pittsburgh-based companies such as PNC, Highmark, PPG, UPMC and many more have made this part of their cultural DNA. However, we need to make Pittsburgh a place where all feel welcome and can access equal opportunity, and we are clearly missing the mark.

So I am challenging my fellow CEOs to take stock of where their corporate dollars are going. I encourage my fellow leaders to ensure they are finding and funding organizations that hone in on the unique challenges facing communities of color. And I am also asking every person in Pittsburgh who values living in a richly diverse city to donate their time and resources to the organizations who are doing the hard work of solving our city’s most pressing problems. This is the only way we are going to begin to address the tough issues that are holding us back.

(Cain Hayes is President & CEO, Gateway Health.)

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