No one ever accused Alan Jennings of wearing rose-colored glasses.
As head of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, a nonprofit based in Bethlehem, he has an unburnished view of how the have-nots and the working poor subsist below the poverty line in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton.
At least on the surface, the city landscape is looking better, thanks to generous tax breaks that have attracted developers to Easton and especially Allentown.
“Lehigh Valley is working at it,” Jennings said. “I try every day, all day long to get our community to do differently for those who get left out.”
A coalition builder, Jennings works with businesses and governments in driving economic growth in underserved communities. It's why he is considered one of the most influential people on business in the Greater Lehigh Valley.
However good the collective intentions of everyone, though, they are not changing the depressing economic data coming out of the cities.
“A lot of people who are working are still poor,” said Jennings, who has been with CACLV since 1980, the last 25 years as its executive director.
The numbers tell it all. In Allentown, one in 10 residents lives in poverty, according to the CACLV website.
“The problem is we are becoming an increasingly stratified society, and more and more people are understanding this is not a great thing,” Jennings said.
Despite reports to the contrary, Jennings said, the economy and housing in particular never really recovered from the Great Recession of 2008.
“I think it's getting a flat line,” he said. The poverty rate and wages, he noted, are key indicators and “they are not moving in a way they should.”
Weakness in the housing market is just as stubborn, and there are signs there is no end in sight.
“The next generation thinks very differently than their parents and grandparents and how they felt about buying a home, and seeing it appreciate in value was the gold ring,” Jennings said.
“This new generation doesn't see having a career in the same place and are not inclined to buy a house and stay in the same place,” he said. “They are not drawn at all by the seduction of that. The market is starting to look very different.”
None of this dims Jennings' enthusiasm.
“Opportunities come and go,” he said. “Allentown is looking like the stronger of the three [Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton].
“No one would have said that a year or two ago,” he said.
So what keeps Jennings running?
“My guiding philosophy is to help everyone understand we are all in this together,” he said.