Dec 29, 2008

Food pantry gives away toys, food for Christmas, sees demand continue to rise

Families from Athens, Meigs and Washington counties poured into the tiny Athens County village of Torch recently, stopping at a small, indiscriminate building to find Christmas presents for their children.

Inside the building, the Friends and Neighbors Community Food Pantry was holding its annual Christmas toy giveaway program. The program is designed to provide enough toys for 100 families, but Director Lisa Roberts said that this year additional families called and asked about toys after the registration deadline, so she hoped to be able to provide for 115 families.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” said one Meigs County resident while picking out presents for her children. “If it wasn’t for this, my kids wouldn’t have any Christmas presents this year.”

The woman is unable to work because of her disability, so she tries to survive on her disability income. She does not have enough money each month to pay most of her bills, and this year she knew that for the first time she would not be able to afford to buy Christmas gifts for her children.

“I’m not allowed to buy my own home,” she added. She can barely pay the rent as it is, and said it has been getting harder every day to get by. This year has been the worst, which is why she had to visit the Christmas present giveaway program. Her children have been adjusting well to the tough economic situation at home, but the woman was very happy to have the presents to give them.

Roberts said every year she hears stories similar to this woman’s, stories of people who are just struggling to get by.

“It’s worse this year,” Roberts said. The high gas prices hurt people earlier in the year, the rising prices for groceries and other items have had an impact, and the national economic problems have just made things tougher for many people.

“As winter comes on, it presents another challenge,” Roberts added. Many people have to pay high utility bills during the winter months. Even if they receive funding from home heating assistance programs, that funding often does not get them through the whole winter.
Flu season is also tough on many families living in poverty, Roberts added. Over-the-counter medications can be expensive, but people often need the medicine for themselves or their children. When you add in trying to buy Christmas presents and serving a special Christmas meal at home, it can all cost too much for many families, Roberts said.

The Friends and Neighbors Community Food Pantry toy giveaway program was held over three days, Dec. 18,19 and 20, and provided a lot of toys for families in need. Each family could pick up stuffed animals, large toys, small toys, electronic toys, dolls, coloring books, socks, underwear, sweaters, coats, hats, gloves and other types of items.

“We started working on this in January,” Roberts explained. The food pantry takes donations and saves up items throughout the year, and also buys many of the presents at summer yard sales. Area residents also donate money to the center for the program, and that allows the volunteers to buy toys from local stores. This year, the center also held a Chinese auction where they raffled off Christmas decorations and raised more than $300 for the Christmas present program.

The pantry also held extra food giveaway programs, where local families could pick up items especially for a Christmas meal.

Like many food pantries, Friends and Neighbors operates out of small buildings and humble surroundings. Volunteers run the operation, and many of them have received food and other items from the pantry previously.

But while the Friends and Neighbors program may look small and simple, it is providing a huge service to people in need, and it made Christmas much warmer and memorable to more than 100 families this year. For more information on the Friends and Neighbors programs, call Roberts at (740) 667-0684.

Dec 15, 2008

New Census figures show people of all ages are living in poverty in Athens County

The city of Athens has the highest poverty rate in the country for any city its size or larger. Athens County has the highest poverty rate in the state.
Those two statements should alarm and outrage the people of Athens County.
New U.S. Census figures for 2005-2007 show that 52.3 percent of the people in the city of Athens are living in poverty. The figures also show that 31.6 percent of the people of Athens County are living in poverty.
While Ohio University students have an impact on the survey, the Census figures show that the poverty rate in the city is very high even if the students are not counted.
· 50.4 percent, of the children under the age of five in Athens live in poverty.
· 34.6 percent of the city residents who are 18 years old or younger live in poverty.
· 30.5 percent of the married couples with children under the age of five live in poverty.
· 48.8 percent of the families with a female head of household live in poverty.
· 100 percent of the families with a female head of household that have children under the age of five live in poverty.
The Census figures also show the poverty problem for all of Athens County.
· Athens County has the fourth-highest rate in the state of children under the age of 18 living in poverty at 32.4 percent. The state average is 18.5 percent.
· Athens County has the eighth-highest rate in the state for people over the age of 65 living below the poverty level at 13.3 percent. The state average is 8.4 percent.
· Athens County has by far the lowest percent of employed civilians over the age of 16 working in manufacturing. Just 5.6 percent of employed civilians work in manufacturing. The state average is 17 percent, and the highest average is 38.5 percent in Shelby County.
· Athens County also has the highest percentage, again by a wide margin, of employed civilians over the age of 16 who work in service occupations. In the county, 25.1 percent of employed people work in the service industry. The state average is 16.5 percent, and the lowest percent is in 11.9 percent in Delaware County.

The Census numbers show that the students are not the main reason the city’s poverty rate is so high. Athens has a higher poverty rate than other college towns in Ohio such as Bowling Green, Kent and Oxford. The figures show that a very high number of non-students in the city live in poverty.
For the county, the figures clearly show how children, senior citizens and residents of all ages are living in poverty. The county has very few manufacturing jobs where people can make high-paying wages, but has a large number of low-paying, service industry jobs.
The county also has a high number of professional jobs through Ohio University, Hocking College and other institutions, but these jobs are not as accessible as manufacturing positions. Often, the professional jobs are filled by people who move into the area.

Also, there is no reason why the students should not count in the Census figures or why their presence here should allow anyone to downplay the poverty problem.
The students all live in Athens and use city and county services. While they contribute to the university, which creates job and benefits the community, for the most part they do not pay local property taxes or income taxes that help pay for government services. They also do not spend much money at businesses outside of the area near campus.
· The city of Athens has the lowest percentage in the state of married couple households, according to the Census figures. The rate in the city is 24.9 percent while the state average is 49.2 percent.
· The city has the lowest percentage in the state for owner-occupied homes. The rate in the city is 32.1 percent, while the state average is 70 percent.
· The cities that have the highest percentages of married couple households and the highest percentage of owner occupied homes are among the cities that have the lowest poverty levels in the state.
· The city has the second highest rate in the state for people who lived in different homes one year ago. The rate in Athens is 62.1 percent, while Oxford has the highest rate at 63.3 percent. The state average is 15.5 percent.
· The city also has the lowest rate of people who drive to work (or school). In Athens, the rate is 41.2 percent, while statewide the percent is 83.1 percent.
The figures show the city is filled with students who are here for a short time, do not have large incomes and do not impact the community in the way that stable families who own their own homes and have large incomes would.

The state and federal governments need to do more to help the people in need. Cash assistance, which only gets an eligible family up to nearly one-third of the federal poverty level, needs to be increased by $100 per month.
In addition, monthly food stamps funding, which only provides for enough food for two weeks, needs to provide enough food for an entire month. Health care services must be available to all adults who live below the federal poverty level. Disability income must be increased. Funding for mental health and substance abuse counseling for families living below the poverty level must be increased.
All of these programs help those in need, and they help the community as a whole. Studies show that public assistance programs stimulate the economy, because the people who receive the funding spend it at local businesses. For every $1 spent in food stamps, for example, $1.73 goes into the local economy.
We can’t just ignore or downplay these poverty figures, or ignore or downplay these people living in need. It’s time to take action to help.

For more information, contact Nick Claussen, community relations coordinator for Athens County Job and Family Services, at (740) 797-2523 or