Sep 25, 2007

Worse than it seems

The recent Census report regarding income, poverty and health insurance coverage in the United States for 2006 got quite a bit of media attention. Yet, perhaps the least reported but most significant statistic is the increase in individuals who are living at less than 50 percent of the poverty level. Clearly, people living at this income level have a very difficult life, struggling to meet their most basic human necessities. When compared to the 2000 Census, there has been an increase in the total number of people, roughly 5.3 million, living below the poverty level. During the same time frame (2000-2006), there has been an increase of 3.2 million people living at less than 50 percent of poverty. This basically means that of the people that have fallen into poverty during these last six years, the fastest and largest growing segment, roughly 60 percent, has been those living at less than half the poverty level. The difference between a family living at less than 50 percent of poverty (less than $10,000 per year) versus a family under 100 percent ($20,000 a year) is huge. Obviously, all poor families are desperately struggling and are living in difficult circumstances. However, we are somewhat cavalier about the growing number of people that are living on less than $10,000 a year.

It would be difficult to deny that many of these families are in this desperate circumstance because of state and federal government policies which have drastically limited the assistance available to them. Families that receive Ohio Works First cash assistance, funded through the federal TANF Block grant, must have a gross income of less than 50 percent of poverty level in order to meet the initial means test for eligibility. Even worse, the cash benefits that we provide these families is only 28 percent of the poverty level. The Ohio Works First program serves over 120,000 children.

Furthermore, there is an increasing number of families who are not eligible for cash assistance due to time limits, sanctions and other program limitations. We are forcing more families to combine households just to survive. This increase in household size without an increase of income is driving more families to live further and further below the federal poverty level.

Other detrimental program policies include the failure of the federal government to resolve the eligibility problem for Social Security Disability and SSI. Currently, 70 percent of initial applications are denied and a majority of people must file for a hearing with an administrative hearing officer in order to have benefits established. The waiting time to get these hearings is frequently as much as two years. During that wait, many of these disabled individuals have no income whatsoever. This, coupled with the virtual elimination of programs in Ohio to provide any financial assistance for those individuals 18 to 65 without children, leaves a large number of people who are either forced to double or triple up in housing simply because they have no income.

The country was horrified to see families in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina who had no place to live, no food, no medical care and were struggling to survive. We are far less sensitive to the fact that we are driving more and more families and individuals into these similar desperate circumstances by design and choice rather then as a result of a natural disaster.

--Jack Frech

[where: Athens, Ohio 45701]

Sep 6, 2007

The "type" of people who get public assistance

On Tuesday Casey Elliott of the Athens Messenger completed a three-part series delving into the lives of three families receiving public assistance in Athens County, Ohio.

There are about 1,400 people receiving such assistance in the county, and though this series featured only a few, it demonstrated an undeniable fact about the type of people who receive public assistance:

There is no "type" of people who get public assistance.

This myth about poor people--that they're lazy, unintelligent, uneducated, self-serving, or any other negative descriptor--is not only an inaccurate and unfair generalization. It's also, from what I've experienced and from what Elliott has demonstrated, usually the opposite of characteristics visible in those who've found themselves in poverty.

Countless unforeseeable events can and do lead intelligent, generous and hard-working individuals down paths that end in destitution. A serious injury, a plant shutdown, a sick family member or a house fire are just a few examples of extenuating circumstances that push families from "just making ends meet" to sucking up their pride and asking for assistance.

This is often the hardest decision the head of a household ever makes. Many view seeking public assistance as an admittance of failure, a recognition that they can't take care of themselves or their families. Would you be able to walk into Job & Family Services and ask for money? Would you be willing to jump through the hoops that welfare reform established, the work requirements and probing questions that are designed to prevent fraud but also make it extraordinarily difficult for deserving families to get assistance?

We at Job & Family Services see the faces of poverty every day, and can vouch that the circumstances that bring them to our door are numerous. Those who live in poverty do have some responsibility for where they are and where they’re going, but their situations aren't entirely within their control. Poverty has been pervasive in this region for decades, and the scarcity of good jobs, lack of affordable health care, limited education opportunities are just a few problems that fuel this persistent issue.

We applaud Elliott and the Messenger for putting names and faces to the often anonymous and overlooked poor families in Athens County. Her objective description of these families makes it a little more difficult for welfare opponents to make sweeping generalities of those on assistance that invalidate their needs and further stigmatize them.

Reanna Stoinoff, community relations intern

[where: Athens, Ohio 45701]

Sep 4, 2007

Athens Messenger Features Public Assistance

Casey Elliott, a reporter at the Athens Messenger, began on Sunday a series of articles about people receiving public assistance in Athens County, Ohio.

Check out the first article

....and the second!

Finally, the third.

Let us know what you think!

[where: Athens, Ohio 45701]