News and Tribune

March 13, 2013

ANDERSON: Poverty and income: What’s it all about?

By BARBARA ANDERSON
Local columnist

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in a series of guest columns from Barbara Anderson on poverty and homelessness in the area. Read previous columns at newsandtribune.com

 

Poverty has a definition, according to Merriam-Webster: “The state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possession.” 

That is pretty concrete. You plain just don’t have enough to measure up to society’s standards. We measure people by their ability to garner things. Those who garner are considered successful and should be admired. Those who don’t are often chastised or rejected.

I remember a Weekly Reader survey a few years back that found the thing second-graders feared most in the world: being poor. There were abductions, war, crime, and the thing they feared the most was being poor. At 7, how did they even know what poor was?

I think they knew because that is what their parents feared the most. Losing it all, not having enough money to live on, not having enough to “be invited to the party” and not having enough to pay for the cars and houses — that can be very frightening. We have taught, however innocently, our children to fear a condition known as poverty. 

However, it is not a disease, it isn’t dirty and you can’t catch it.

So, why the fear? My guess would be that many remembered how bad it felt to be poor, not to have the same clothes as the other kids in class or to be in the food line with the card that everybody knew meant you were a “free lunch” kid. 

That hidden fear has created a shame based attitude toward the poor and is leading to the criminalization of poverty. Many state people choose to be poor, or they are just too lazy to work. One man recently said to me: “Barbara, I am tired of paying for nonproducers. You see you have your takers and your givers, and some of us are forced to give whether we want to or not through our tax dollars. If we didn’t have so many nonproducers, those taxes would reduce and we could possibly have more money to create more jobs.” 

Well, the top 5 percent have had those tax breaks and with record profits have created fewer jobs. What is that about?

According to the Indiana Institute for Working Families (Indiana Community Action Agency Program) the self-sufficiency standard for Clark County for a family of four is an hourly wage of $19.34 per hour, or with both parents working, $9.67 each per hour full-time. The annual wage would need to be $40,837. 

The standard is an important one in that it calculates the income needed to support that family in our respective communities if they were to exist without government support. The Floyd County calculation was the same as Clark’s. If you go to the website for the Indiana Institute for Working Families, you can actually calculate what the income level is for your family in your county. I did, and as a household of two (empty nester) our current income level should be $25,467. It is interesting to do the process with your family because your children can see by what they allow to be budgeted what is necessary and what needs to be paid first.

So, how does that affect the people at the Williams Emergency Shelter? We have 14 people on Social Security Supplemental Income, which equates to an income of $674 a month, or $8,088 per year. The Indiana Institute for Working Families calculates those 14 households should have an income of $17,602 for Clark County and $17,726.00 for Floyd County. In other words, they will never be self-sufficient as long as they receive SSI as their primary income. It is an income-based program so the more they would earn, the more they would lose in SSI, so it would be a trade-off. 

In addition, there are another seven on Social Security disability income between $800 and $1,000 per month. Why are all these folks on disability? Four are older women who have physical disabilities that are very pronounced — one wheelchair bound, one an amputee, three developmentally delayed adults, three with mental health issues and the list goes on. One man has had four operations on his back. 

Most of the people who live at the shelter worked very labor-intensive jobs that damaged their bodies and had very low wages. Of those adults that are not disabled, four are pending disability, the remaining are looking for work, working and earning lower than a living wage or in school for training. They are making every effort though. Of course you have those who don’t try, but eventually the light goes on and the motivation to work kicks in. 

Last Friday, we were having a residents’ meeting. One of the happiest announcements in a while was that a long-time family (nine months) got their apartment through the Homeless Veterans’ Program. They have since moved out. Both of them intend to come back and volunteer on Friday and Saturdays. 

The man got his veterans’ services while at the shelter and she got a job at a local retailers over Christmas when the retailer brought gifts to the shelter and they were impressed at how she helped them get the gifts in, distribute them to the residents and served the other residents in general. For the first time in nine months, their daughter, age 9, will have her own room. 

The whole room broke into applause, and that is what it is all about.

— Barbara Anderson is executive director of Haven House Services Inc.