Saturday, April 2, 2016

It's Not Easy Being Green - or Poor

“It’s not easy being green,” is Kermit the Frog’s theme song. 

I’ve recently spent some time helping out at a Salvation Army center here in Ohio, and the more I talked with shelter residents and those looking for housing, the more disturbed I became. In my frustration, I changed one word to sing along with Kermit, “It’s not easy being poor.” 

Their faces were unique. The twenty-one-year-old woman who had to take custody of her siblings because her mother couldn’t care for them. The family of five who cope daily with chronic illness and the lasting effects of a horrific car accident. The elderly couple with a disabled son who were evicted from their rental property because it was sold. The young man with $1000 in his pocket who can’t find anyone to rent to him because of his felony conviction. The family of six who sent the wrong amount as a payment for their electric bill, and now face disconnection and subsequent eviction from the trailer park where they’ve lived for fifteen years. They’re exhausted and discouraged. “It’s not easy being poor.”  

If the faces were unique, the themes were familiar. Systems bound by rules that make sense on paper but have little flexibility. Lack of transportation. Systems with departments that don’t talk to each other. Endless paperwork. Workers with unrealistic caseloads. Barriers to employment. A tight housing market. Poor communication skills. Hopelessness.    
Here’s what poverty looks like in Ashland County. The University of Washington School of Social Work developed a self-sufficiency standard, factoring in housing costs, child care, food, and other needs, taking into account the earned income credit and child tax credit. For a parent with one pre-school child, a wage of $14.01 an hour (at a full-time job) is needed to meet that minimum self-sufficiency standard here in our community. With two small children, it’s $19.72 an hour. Even with two adults in the home working full-time, they both have to make at least $11.59 an hour to make ends meet at the bare minimum. 

But don’t we have a safety net of services and support through the government and local agencies? Well, yes and no. According to the Center for Community Solutions, a family that receives TANF (cash assistance), SNAP (food stamps), and WIC (supplemental food for pregnant women and young children) will receive the equivalent of $7,595 per year. To be fair, this doesn’t include the value of Medicaid or of a housing voucher if they can get one (the wait is 2+ years). Still, I’d hate to jump off a roof into that safety net. 

$7,595, with a work requirement of thirty hours per week. In comparison, a full-time worker at minimum wage earns $16,848, the federal poverty level for a family of three is $20,090, and the self-sufficiency standard for that same family is $39,581. According to the Census Bureau, 8300 people in Ashland County lived below poverty level in 2013, but the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services reports that only 136 assistance groups (families) actually received what we’ve known as welfare payments in Ashland County that year. No wonder food pantry use has increased 375% since 2006. “It’s not easy being poor.”     

Have some people who are mired in poverty made unwise choices? Absolutely. But I’ve made a poor choice or two myself. Yet I have family support, overdraft protection, accident forgiveness, and credit cards as a cushion. They don’t. 

In 1890, Salvation Army co-founder William Booth illustrated his concern for the poor with his Cab Horse Charter. In Victorian London, cab horses pulled carriages around the city every day, and the standard of care for them was this: When the horse is down, he is helped up. While she lives, she has food, shelter and work. Shouldn’t human beings deserve this minimal standard, asked Booth?

Kermit’s song continues: “It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things. And people tend to pass you over ‘cause you’re not standing out like flashy sparkles in the water – or stars in the sky. It’s not easy being green.” As one out of six of our neighbors know first hand, it’s not easy being poor either.   

JoAnn Streeter Shade

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