Until there is a collective will to really address poverty, things won’t get better
By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times
COATESVILLE — With wealth bordering on abundance at times in Chester County, it can be difficult to confront the truth that for many here — arguably far too many — poverty remains a stark reality and a reality that in recent years has gotten worse.
This past week, six state representatives — five from Chester County — held a free-wheeling discussion with groups from around the county to look at what could be done. The discussion was led by State Rep. Dave Reed — majority chair of the House Policy Committee. Reed has been traveling the state, looking closely at the issue of poverty and its related symptoms from crime to hunger.
Reed, a Republican from Indiana County, admits that not everyone has been supportive of his study of poverty. He notes that some of his fellow Republicans don’t see poverty as a serious issue or at least one that needs so much attention, while Democrats don’t seem to think he’s serious.
“Both parties want to stick to their talking points,” Reed said.
But in touring the state and learning, talking and listening with those on the ground providing services to the needy — as he did last week — he sees it as a multifaceted problem with no single solution.
“There’s no silver bullet,” he said. “But we have to figure out what we can do differently.”
Reed was joined by five Chester County state representatives: John Lawrence (R-13), Dan Truitt (R-156), Tim Hennessey (R-26), Warren Kampf (R-167) and Becky Corbin (R-155) and representatives of some of the local agencies that assist those in need including: Brandywine Health Foundation, T&E Care, Coatesville Youth Initiative, La Comunidad Hispana; Child Guidance Resource Center; Mom’s House Inc. of Greater Philadelphia; Parkesburg Point; Coatesville Senior Center; and the Coatesville Soup Kitchen.
A wide range of issues were discussed, from the fact that in many cases, the working poor are better off on public assistance — thanks to the cost of day care — which perpetuates multi-generational cycles of poverty. The issue too young parents and a lack of male role models — thanks to a number of issues ranging from the drug trade to public assistance rules that make many families better off financially if dad is out of the picture.
And even if there are options for help, noted Chaya Scott, director of the Coatesville Youth Initiative, it can be a maze of organizations and rules that sometimes leaves people so frustrated they give up. Another issue: with local organizations fighting over an increasingly shrinking pool of funds, there is little incentive for them to work together, meaning both unneeded overlap, and worse, gaps in serving needs for the community. That’s something, she told the gathering, the state could help to fix.
“Whomever is holding the pursestrings, has the most power in getting people to work together,” she said. She also noted that Chester County has been successful with such an approach.
Another issue: the funds from government often come with cumbersome requirements that can mean they also go unused, while there are funding shortfalls for other needs. While the county has been able to make progress with this issue, thanks to the block grant program — a new state social services initiative to give some county’s more options on how to spend a single pool of funding, rather than designating it in proscribed categories — state and federal funds provided to local agencies still use very specific funding designations.
With the confusing maze of help options, laws that actually push fathers away from their families and economic realities, it probably should be surprising that some resort to crime, said Harry Lewis, Jr., the former chairman of the board of the Brandywine Health Foundation — and a very likely candidate for State Representative in 2014.
These young people make one mistake — and find themselves locked out of other options. A felony conviction is essentially a death sentence for any meaningful employment career. And while in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, there tends to be more support — and more options, including diversionary programs that leave first offenders with no criminal record if they stay out of trouble — those options are more rarely used for those with little resources. Which sends some of these young men into a world of continued crime and violence, which hurts the larger community.
“It’s frustrating, they having nothing to look forward to,” Lewis said.
And even if they manage to stay on the straight and narrow, the lack of mentors and social training leaves these young men at minimum at a disadvantage — at worst, seeing themselves left with no option but to take up the drug trade or worse.
With the system structurally aligned against them and no obvious road forward, finding a path forward for those in poverty — and a road out of it — frustrates almost everyone involved.
But maybe some of the answers come from the past.
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For many of us, the issue of poverty has a personal impact. Wednesday, Reed spoke a bit about his youth and facing such issues growing up in his family.
I can tell a similar story, as well.
In July, 1972, when I was eight, my father walked out on our family, leaving us with virtually nothing. My mom has been out of the work force for more than a decade, raising kids, and suddenly found herself with three kids ranging from a high school senior to a toddler to support, and no car, no job and a creaky old log cabin which constantly needed care for a home. Child support? Not so much.
For a brief period, six months or so, we were forced to go on Food Stamps. My mother was horrified at the prospect, and we were all embarrassed — so much so that we stopped shopping at the popular supermarket in town, and went to the less-used one in the hopes that no one would see our plight. But if the choice was between her kids going hungry and living with some embarrassment, she did what she had to do.
We struggled through, my mom worked all sort of odd and part-time jobs, and sometimes it was day-to-day, even hour-to-hour at times. We had to grow up faster than maybe was ideal — but it was what we had to do.
What finally changed things for the better was when President Richard Nixon signed the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) into law in late 1973. My mom was one of the early beneficiaries — ending up working at Community Action Council of Passaic County (N.J.). In her four years there, rising to deputy director — as our family was able to evolve into something like a more normal life — she was able to set up Meals On Wheels programs, aid the just-coming into its own Head Start program in the county and helped start a thrift store for those in need (with any profits going back into the community), among many other initiatives that benefitted the community. That only happened because of CETA.
Ultimately, she moved into running a center for developmentally disabled adults, where she served as director for during the last 15 years of her life. As I came of age, and starting working in the journalism field — I watched and wrote about the slow dismantling of the various programs that my mom had helped to create during the 1980s, as trickle-down economics looked to tear down The Great Society.
And while some of those programs were wasteful and useless, some, like CETA, provided a hand-up for those seeking to work their way out of poverty.
Like the GI Bill of a few generations back, programs like CETA, job training and such helped to build a foundation on which many folks built on. In my family’s case, it meant moving back into the middle class and sending three kids to college — and ultimately, professions that allowed us to do fairly well for ourselves.
As I look around Chester County, I don’t see anything like the old CETA program — in fact many seem to think it was some sort of government handout, rather than something useful. But looking around, I don’t see a lot of paths forward for people — and an independent agency like the old Community Action Council might be able to provide services and the kind of coordination that could help many more people.
We can’t throw money at problems — but we can be smart and invest in our people.
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Meanwhile, Reed said he hopes to take what he’s learned — and by directly exposing a large number of his house colleagues to the issues of poverty, to begin legislatively working to improve things. More than likely, he said, those improvements will come from a number of smaller moves and changes to state law, rather some overarching new program.
And while there’s no doubt that the state can and should do things more intelligently, I can’t help but feel it will still be working around the margins. Until we — as a society — begin to again feel shame that we permit such wide-scale poverty in arguably the wealthiest nation in the world, there will not be meaningful change.
And we should be ashamed, especially here in Chester County, a county with such a strong history of folks listening and acting on their conscience — it was a hot bed of abolitionism — that we cant remember our moral obligation to each other as a community.
Maybe it is easier to shout at each other with our respective parties talking points, as Reed suggests is mostly what happens when it comes to poverty. It’s safe, of course.
But we live in a county — an enormously wealthy county — where there are mothers forced to live in a tapped out old car with their children, where children regularly go to bed hungry and where men wake up and face another day with no hope of it being better than the last.
What happened to us that we can tolerate that reality? Where is our compassion? Where is our anger? I know there are many people who feel these things and are actively working to fix these issues. But there are not enough of us engaged in this issue.
While this past week’s roundtable was certainly a good step forward, we as a greater community need to start having these conversations on a broader base. We need to step past petty ideology and move toward real problem solving.
Then, maybe, we can look ourselves in the mirror again without feeling shame.