May 28, 2015
Poverty: Myths and Misconceptions
By Andy Mazella, Catholic Charities
It is an accepted fact that poverty and homelessness are on the rise in Steuben County and across America. Does that mean that Americans are lazy and have lost their work ethic? Or could there be other reasons? One reason might be that we are experiencing a long and slow recovery from the greatest recession in the last seventy five years. Although unemployment has dropped significantly, the majority of the jobs that are available do not pay a living wage. In Steuben County unemployment remains higher than the State and Federal rate and under-employment is a growing problem. Most of the jobs that have been created locally are in the service and retail sectors and, again, do not provide a living wage.
No, Americans are not lazy. Nor have they lost their work ethic. The ranks of the poor are being swelled by struggling “working poor” people — many working two, even three part time jobs — working hard and falling short. These good people would rather earn a living wage than accept government assistance to feed their families, but they do need our help.
In Steuben County nearly 30,000 people are either living in poverty or are living in low income households and are at risk of falling into poverty. That’s roughly three in ten people. Twenty five percent of our children under eighteen are living in poverty. Fifty percent of our students are eligible for free or reduced fee meals in school based on household income.
Granted, there are some who take advantage of assistance programs. Some do scam the system. There are also those that are living in poverty as a result of their own poor choices or bad decisions. But the reality is that the vast majority of poor people, including those we see at Catholic Charities, are poor as a result of circumstances or decisions over which they had no control. Physical or mental disabilities, mental illness, catastrophic medical expenses, death of a spouse, divorce, loss of a job or loss of hours at work are just some of the major causes of poverty. Incidentally, catastrophic medical expenses are the number one cause of bankruptcies in America, and sixty percent of those families had health insurance. It can happen to anyone of us. The myths, misconceptions and misunderstandings regarding the poor leads to contempt and resentment. We often become judgmental and disparage the poor as being undeserving of our help.
In a recent interview with the Hornell Evening Tribune regarding poverty, Congressman Tom Reed stated that he and his colleagues are on the case. They are seeking to instill work as an American value by putting together reforms that promote and enhance the work ethic in America and reforms to get people the skills and training necessary to provide for themselves and not depend on the government. Actions speak louder than words. While we welcome the possibility of providing training to develop job skills, we need to ask if these programs were included in the Congressional Budget that Congressman Reed voted for recently? That budget proposes cuts of over five trillion dollars from the Federal budget over the next 10 years. Sixty nine percent of these cuts were to programs effecting the poor and middle class.
Congressman Reed further indicated the need for Welfare reform, including reauthorization to TANF (Tempory Assistance to Needy Families). In Steuben County, TANF provides cash assistance to roughly 1,500 people, mostly children, in any given month. That is just 1.5% of the County population and only about 10% of the people living in poverty in our community.
There is a five year lifetime eligibility limit for TANF assistance. However New York State does provide a safety net after five years for those who qualify. There are roughly 500 people, mostly children, who receive this benefit at any given time. That is just one third of one percent of the poor in Steuben County.
A census report confirmed that large numbers of Americans are impoverished for two years or less and are then able to return to self-sufficiency but are replaced by those who fell on hard times.
One way the government and Congressman Reed can help the working poor is by increasing the Federal minimum wage. The House has refused to bring this bill to the floor claiming it would hurt minimum wage workers, most of which are women, not teenagers. There is no evidence that raising the minimum wage results in loss of jobs or higher prices for goods and services in states that have raised the minimum wage, including New York State.
Congress could also pass the Infrastructure Bill to repair our deteriorating bridges and highways. This would create tens of thousands of good paying jobs across the country benefiting the poor, the middle class and the economy as a whole. Perhaps it could include funding for job training or apprenticeships for the building trades.
Dealing with poverty in America is a complicated and difficult challenge. There are no easy answers. What is not helpful is to continue to perpetrate the myths, misconceptions and stereotypes of poverty and the poor. We need to know and stick to the facts in order to develop workable solutions. It is an injustice that, for too many people, jobs are out of reach or do not pay enough to meet basic needs and live with dignity. Catholic Charities of Steuben is committed to treating everyone we serve non-judgmentally, with dignity and respect. We leverage limited resources to provide high quality, effective services that empower people to enrich their quality of life.
Member, Board of Directors
Catholic Charities of Steuben