Guest Editorial from Laura M. Opelt Executive Director of Catholic Charities of Steuben County
Recently the US Census Bureau announced that nearly 1 in 2 Americans have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on an earning that classify them as low-income, the working poor. High unemployment, long-term unemployment, under-employment, and stagnating wages have hurt millions of workers and families.
In Steuben County 13.5% of our population or 13,500 people are living below the Federal Poverty Guidelines. It is estimated that an additional 30% or approximately 30,000 people are living in households that earn less than twice the poverty guidelines. As an example, an individual working full-time at minimum wage will earn $15,300 a year. This is hardly a living wage. However, this person is not considered to be living in poverty because the Federal Poverty Guidelines for individuals are earnings of $10,890 or less. This individual will probably not be eligible for any cash or housing assistance or medicaid under state and federal regulations or guidelines but would qualify for food stamps to help supplement his/her food needs.
This is a typical example of the working poor we see every day at Catholic Charities. Prior to the recession 69% of the people we served were working, mostly at jobs that did not pay a living wage. Last year only 39% were working. In 2008 the average income was $10,000. Last year it dropped to $8,500. Yet, according to a recent article on the Census report, Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, questioned whether some people classified as poor or low-income actually suffer material hardship and that safety net programs have gone too far. He notes that many of these people live in decent size homes, drive cars, and own wide-screen televisions. This is a typical judgmental, stereotypical, and prejudicial view of the poor that is far too common in our society today. Could it be that these decent homes were purchased before the owner lost his/her job? The same for owning a car, could that have been a purchase while the owner was still working or before he/she lost hours at work and became underemployed? Could it be that the car is an absolute necessity in a rural area like Steuben County to get to a job that does not pay a living wage? And sadly, the television set may be rented because when you live in poverty you lose hope for a better tomorrow and live only for today. Tomorrow will be no better than today so do what brings you pleasure today, even if it means spending some of your meager resources on extravagant entertainment. Like all of us, poor people sometimes make poor choices.
As I have often said, many of us have a tendency to blame people for their own circumstances and believe that if a person is in need it has got to be his/her own fault. This may be true in many cases but more often it is circumstances or situations, such as physical and/or mental disabilities, learning disabilities, mental illness, lack of education or job skills, or working at a job that does not pay a living wage. Personal tragedies, loss of a job or hours at work, catastrophic medical expenses, divorce, or death of a spouse are major causes of poverty. Affordable child care and reliable transportation are often barriers that prevent people from finding and keeping a job.
The present economic and political climate present even more challenges for the poor and working poor. HEAP, the federal program that provided funds for heating assistance, has been drastically cut this year. There is a budget proposal before Congress that would reduce Food Stamp funding by $170 million dollars. Pell grants for qualifying college students are facing a 50% cut. Funds for emergency food and shelter assistance that we have been receiving have been cut by 40% and Steuben County will not receive any of the remaining funds. Catholic Charities has lost its funding for our Homeless Intervention Program at a time when evictions and homelessness are on the rise in Steuben County. The list goes on and on. Congress continues to try to reduce the budget at the expense of the poor but refuses to cut a $70 billion subsidy to oil companies that are recording record profits.
Contrary to Mr. Rector’s comments most poor people do not become dependent on public assistance. In most cases public assistance is temporary. The majority of recipients will get back on their feet and move forward without help. A 2010 Census report confirmed that large numbers of Americans are impoverished for 2 years or less and are then able to return to self-sufficiency but are replace by others who fall on hard times.
Currently, in Steuben County there are approximately 500 adults and 1,000 children who are receiving cash assistance, or about 1.5% of our population. There are fewer than 400 individuals in that number that require cash assistance for 5 years or longer and again most of these are children living in a household with and adult other than their parents who are not receiving any cash assistance.
We can no longer perpetuate the judgmental, prejudicial, and stereotypical views of the poor in our community. I hope these few facts help clarify some of the common myths and misconceptions of our less fortunate neighbors.
Laura M. Opelt
Catholic Charities of Steuben County