This story contains links to past stories from (Dis)Invested, a yearlong project from The Omaha Reader to highlight how we invest, or disinvest, our time, money and attention has an effect on the places we live.
The goal of the $335 million in pandemic relief and state money for North and South Omaha has never been about one-time fixes. From issues like housing to crime, poverty to education, the easternmost neighborhoods of Omaha have long stood out as areas of static inequity. As leaders decide how to disperse these funds — which include $250 million in federal money and $85 million from the state, according to the Omaha Economic Recovery Act Coordination Plan’s website — the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research released a report in October highlighting differences between these communities and the rest of Douglas County. Researchers identified areas that roughly correspond with North and South Omaha and summarized the strengths, weaknesses, challenges, opportunities and threats in each community.
North and South Omaha both have dense, young populations and lively immigrant communities with engaged labor forces and comparatively high rates of self-employment, the report reads. Although diverse, both areas’ segregated populations have high poverty concentrations and high percentages of “working poor.” While North Omaha’s population has decreased and South Omaha’s has grown in the past decade, the historic infusion of funding presents opportunities to invest in education, workforce training and housing access.
The Reader has also been hard at work this past year reporting on how investments (or the lack thereof) of time, energy and money impact the places we live. Here are some key findings from UNO’s report along with supplemental reading from The Reader’s (Dis)Invested project that can contextualize the numbers.
Where we live is one of the key indicators of health. It coincides with income level, educational attainment, access to health care, proximity to good schools and so much more. In Omaha, living in North or South Omaha means you probably rent, have more problems with your home and spend a larger share of your monthly income on housing.
Historically, these trends can be traced back to practices such as redlining, racial covenants and discriminatory housing practices that have built dramatically different Omahas. Today, programs exist to help people find housing, but many people continue to be trapped in a cycle of settling for housing that’s unsafe, too expensive and, in some cases, operated by landlords who accrue code violations with little oversight from the city.
Education is a pathway to higher-paying, more fulfilling jobs, homeownership or better opportunities for children. However, those opportunities are not obtained equally across Omaha. If you live in North and South Omaha you’re about half as likely to have a college degree as the rest of Douglas County, according to UNO.
In many Omaha public high schools, the pandemic and district officials’ responses to it accelerated a wave of white flight. Meanwhile Black, Latino and Native American students in Omaha’s schools were chronically absent and suspended at higher rates than their white counterparts, signaling to professionals that students need more support that’s culturally resonant from adults who look like them. Community-based behavioral health programs, such as the Center for Holistic Development, are critical solutions to giving youth the care they need, especially in the wake of the pandemic. Others are trying to erase these educational gaps by offering free bilingual GED classes that can help immigrants and people seeking higher education.
In Omaha, accessing basic government services, knowing how to pay a traffic ticket or enrolling a child in school becomes a lot harder if you don’t speak English. While local government, nonprofits and other entities strive to make information available in a variety of languages, gaps still occur. In the summer of 2022, the city received criticism for failing to provide multilingual updates as a massive chemical fire burned in South Omaha.
But there have been some strides toward progress, especially for Spanish speakers in the area.
In August, the City of Omaha opened emergency rental assistance funds to people who are undocumented. The Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless, the agency tasked with distributing Omaha’s emergency rental funds, created a contact form for Spanish speakers to connect with a Spanish-speaking specialist to guide them through the rental assistance application. Other nonprofits are also stepping up. The Latino Center of the Midlands’ Siembra Salud program equips Spanish speakers with home gardens and bilingual community health workers to prevent health disparities.
Income and Poverty
The consequences of these inequities, and others, lead to a variety of challenges, including more poverty. The share of North and South Omahans, particularly children, living in poverty is multitudes higher than the rest of the county or state. Though fewer Nebraska children live in poverty today than previous years, higher rates of childhood poverty persists for Black, Native and Latino children.
Some low-income families qualify for help in the form of government assistance. However, many find themselves denied as the state continues to accrue more and more unspent funds that should be going to Nebraska’s most needy. Because of many aid programs’ strict income requirements, many people also find themselves working full time but remaining in poverty. Strict federal immigration policy is a significant barrier to jobs for many North and South Omaha immigrants, who offer proven economic benefits to their communities.
While many people are struggling, investment in child care, STEM programs and research studies about how we could handle welfare differently are moving toward solutions to the cycles of poverty in North and South Omaha. High entrepreneurship and self-employment rates in both communities show an opportunity for investment, according to the UNO report.
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