Berkshire Eagle, December 29, 2007: The Burden of Poverty

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Back in the days when America sent men to the moon, a phrase of frustration evolved that asked, “If we can send a man to the moon, why can’t we. . .?” Possible questions included build a good, inexpensive car, invent a tasty diet drink, and solve poverty. We’re still working on the answers to those questions, including the scourge of poverty, which continues to afflict the wealthiest nation on the planet.

The holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is the one part of the year when most Americans think about the issue of poverty. The front page articles by Amy Carr in the December 23 Eagle explored poverty here in the beautiful Berkshires. The Berkshire economy has struggled for as long as many residents can remember, and poverty and homelessness are a consistent problem here that defies easy resolution.

According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 10 percent of all Berkshire residents live in poverty. The state Executive Office of Health and Human Services estimated in Ms. Carr’s main story that about 25 percent of those residents are not receiving state assistance of any kind. So the issue is not just poverty but getting help to all of those who are struggling.

Berkshire communities have any number of selfless volunteers, working through churches and community service organizations, who diligently help the families most in need, but like everything else, the poverty issue comes down to money, and that is scarce. Washington offers six federal assistance programs, but too often their guidelines provide a disincentive to work, as recipients who make too much money risk losing monetary assistance or Section 8 housing. The state, which is always struggling to make ends meet, only has so much money available for the needy.

Ms. Carr’s article on three Berkshire residents living in poverty provided strong anecdotal evidence of the horrific burden they carry. It is clear that the punishing cost of health care contributes mightily to their misery and that of their children. For that, there is no excuse. Many don’t have the education needed to improve their status, and while there are opportunities to do so it is difficult with nagging health problems, or inadequate child care.

Yes, there is an issue of personal responsibility involved. Anyone who is poor and has an alcohol problem must go to AA, and those who smoke must get help kicking a habit that is costly and destructive to health. But the bureaucracy shouldn’t be stacked against them. It shouldn’t be difficult to qualify for assistance and those who try to better themselves shouldn’t lose benefits or housing. Poverty is tough enough without government Catch-22s.

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