Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Poverty in Vermont

For all her troubles, Alice is cheerful.

She's sitting at a desk at the Northeast Kingdom Community Action (NEKCA) Parent-Child Center in St. Johnsbury, helping out with some clerical chores.

"I like this," she said. "I'd like to do secretarial work. I think that'll work out."
By her own admission, not all of Alice's employment experiences have "worked out." She tried a fast-food job, she said, and stitching in a shoe factory.

Students in the NEKCA's Head Start program
prepare for the day.
Photo: Jon Margolis
"They didn't work out," she said.

But Alice is not giving up, and NEKCA is not giving up on her. She's multi-tasking at the Center this day, doing some work, which entitles her to her "Reach Up" grant, also known as TANF, (Temporary Assistance To Needy Families, once simply "Welfare"), but also taking a class in how to fill out an employment application.

Alice (not her real name) is 23, and has been at NEKCA – and depending on Reach Out – off and on since she was 16, a high school drop-out, and a single mother. Despite not keeping a job, she's made progress. With NEKCA's help, she got her high school diploma. Her hope is to get a job, not another gig flipping burgers at a fast-food joint, but one paying a reasonable wage.

She needs it. A minimum wage job would pay her $8.15 an hour. Even if she worked full-time all year (by no means a given in these jobs) her gross pay for the year would be $16,952. With three children, Alice needs, according to the official assessment of the federal government, $22,050 to escape poverty.
There's a word one doesn't hear much these days. The economy is much discussed – budget deficits, taxes, the housing market, the middle-class squeeze. But poverty? It seems to have receded into the mist, as though most people would like to forget that it exists.

It does, even in Vermont, where at last count (from December 2010, but reflecting 2009 figures), 69,137 people lived in households with incomes below the poverty line. Almost one quarter of them, 17,371, were under 18.

The state's total poverty rate in 2009 was 11.5 percent, according to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's one of the lowest poverty rates in the nation. But it's higher than it was a couple of years ago as the Great Recession has thrown more people into poverty.

Actually, it's more than that, perhaps substantially more. First of all, the 2010 numbers, when they are compiled, will almost certainly be higher. And some of the poorest Vermonters, young and old, may not have been counted. A "Profile of Vermont Residents in Deep Poverty" prepared by Dartmouth College undergraduates last year found that "many individuals in deep poverty may not have any connection to government benefits or support systems," meaning they have not been found.

Not to mention that there is something close to a consensus among those who deal with poverty that "the federal poverty level is so low," in the words of Shaun F. Donahue, Vermont's Chief Administrator of the Office of Economic Opportunity, that it is unrealistic. In fact, Donahue said, federal officials are considering the creation of a new category of a "supplemental poverty measure," using it not determine eligibility for aid, but to provide a more accurate picture of the poverty situation.
As Alice's case demonstrates, some of the poor are at least partly responsible for their plight. No one made her get pregnant at 16, or have two more children since then, while still unmarried. She probably could have kept those jobs that "didn't work out," but for whatever reason, she did not.

But as Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine noted, "a girl makes a mistake; do we condemn her to poverty? We try to provide support."

Watch more of Jon Margolis's interview with Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine
Besides, with the income Alice was earning, she'd still be poor. Poverty has several causes. One of them is low wages.

In one sense, though, Alice is not typical of Vermont's poor. Her children are, and their poverty isn't their fault. There are more poor adults, but the poverty rate for children – 13 percent – is higher. A simple examination of the numbers reveals that a substantial majority of Vermont's poor are the children and their parents, mostly one parent, mostly the mother.

More than one of every three of these children – 7,000, or six percent – live in households where the annual income is less than half the poverty line, or just a little more than $11,000 for a four-person household. Alice and her kids would appear to be in that "deep poverty" classification. Statewide, 4.9 percent of Vermonters live in households whose income is less than half of the official poverty threshold.

It isn't that all poor people in Vermont are unmarried mothers and their children. The poor come in all shapes, size, and genders – men and women, young and old, rural and urban, even fully employed individuals who have held the same job for years but don't earn enough to escape poverty.

The poor are all over the state. The rates (in 2009, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service) range from 9.4 percent in Grand Isle County to 16.9 percent in Essex County. Caledonia (14.9) and Orleans (13.5) also have high rates, making the Northeast Kingdom the poorest part of Vermont. In Chittenden County as a whole, the rate is 10.6 percent. But in the city of Burlington it is 26 percent, with half of those between 18 and 24 living in poverty. More than 12 percent in Burlington are in the "deep poverty" category.

Some 30 percent of the Burlington's African-American population is poor, as are 35 percent of Hispanics and almost 45 percent of American Indians and Alaska natives. But those minorities are such a small percentage of the total population, that even in Burlington, the vast majority of poor people are white. The poverty rate among whites – just over 20 percent – is lower. But there are 7,500 of poor whites, compared to a few hundred poor among all the minorities combined.

In Burlington as elsewhere, the biggest chunk of the poverty population – 69 percent – is made up of unmarried women and their children. Advocates for the poor like to stress the diversity of the poverty population. It is diverse. But it is unmarried young mothers with no more (and often less) than a high school education who are the majority.

And the hardest to remedy. Even with help, a young, single mother without a college degree has a hard time making a living.

"The big barrier is transportation," said Sally Hafer, the head of the Head Start program at the Central Vermont Community Action Council in Barre. "We have very little public transportation, and it's very expensive to put a car on the road."

Then there's child care. Even if she lands a job and figures out how to get there, the mother of a baby or toddler has to find – and sometimes pay for – someone to care for her child.

For this, she often has help. The general public may not be noticing the poor. But it is paying to help them escape poverty, or at least endure it. Determining exactly how much, said Donahue, is effectively impossible because so many state and federal programs benefit low income people whose incomes are slightly above the official poverty line. In addition, there is such a broad – and perhaps confusing – array of state and federal programs funneled through different agencies, that figuring out precisely how much money goes to anti-poverty efforts in Vermont would strain the abilities of the most skilled accountant.

But clearly several million dollars of state and federal money are directed toward the officially poor. Some of it is cash benefits, but much of it is in services provided by the state's five regional community action agencies – food shelves, emergency shelter, employment counseling, Head Start classes, and more. NEKCA Executive Director Joe Patrissi said his agency alone serves 180 Head Start children. At $8,400 a child, that's more than $1.5 million just in the Northeast Kingdom.

That sounds like a lot, but perhaps it's not enough. Patrissi said there are 60 more children on the Head Start waiting list, but there is no room for them because there is no more money.

And likely to be less after Congressional budget cuts. Though very few politicians anywhere – and fewer yet in Vermont – oppose anti-poverty programs, many think they should be more efficiently operated, and some wonder how much good they do.

Sometimes, so do the people working in the anti-poverty field, many of whom have no illusions about the people they serve. To some extent, they know, anti-poverty programs offer a palliative, not a cure. Some do escape poverty; many more simply live more tolerably within it thanks to welfare grants and services.

"We do often-time wonder" about the behavior of some of the parents of the children in the Early Head Start program, said Corey Kelly, one of the teachers who visits the homes of toddlers of poor mothers. Some of those mothers, she said, "transition into (disability benefits) when from our perspective they're perfectly able to get a job." The same applies, she said, to some of the men with whom the mothers are "in and out of relationships."

But neither she nor her colleagues seem to get discouraged. Anti-poverty workers aren't in it for the money; top "executives" at NEKCA don't earn much more than $40,000 a year. But they're determined, and they think they're doing some good. They track their victories: two or three mothers a year get their high school diplomas; perhaps 40 a year get jobs, though admittedly most of them aren't very good jobs.

But then there's the Post-Secondary Education program. At the same time Alice was doing her clerical work and learning how to fill out a job application, two other young, single, mothers, were in another room at the center working on their college applications.

"With a college degree," one of them said, "I can make a real living."

Education, says Secretary Racine, is the best long-range answer to poverty in Vermont and elsewhere.
"So many of these kids start off behind," he said. "The odds are stacked against that kid" born into poverty. Racine supports Gov. Peter Shumlin's call for universal pre-kindergarten schooling to keep poorer children from falling behind before they even start kindergarten.

That's for the future. Alice, though, has already missed her chance to catch up as a toddler, or not to fall behind as a teenager. She's still behind. But she hasn't quit. Neither, thanks to the folks at NEKCA, has she been quit on. She could get that decent job yet, which, if nothing else, would make it much less likely that her daughter will get pregnant in high school, drop out, and need Reach Up.

Any opinions expressed in this story do not necessarily reflect those of Vermont Public Television.

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