Burlington Free Press, November 22, 2007: Poverty amid plenty

Posted on

By Nancy Remsen
Free Press Staff Writer

November 22, 2007
A year ago, a young Burlington couple dreamed of owning a home with a backyard where their two sons could play. Then the roofing company where the husband worked went out of business. Their dream was replaced with the looming nightmare of homelessness.

A Newport woman and her fiance work, and she goes to school in hopes of becoming a registered nurse. But with five children to support — his, hers and theirs — they earn barely enough to make ends meet. “If we didn’t work, we’d be better off,” the woman said, “but I don’t want to do that.”

Life for a South Burlington family changed in a heartbeat two years ago. That’s when the mother came home to find her daughter on the floor in cardiac arrest. The mother, a registered nurse, quit her job to care for the girl through two open-heart surgeries in Boston, plunging the family into debt.

A Barre woman wanted a better life than welfare provided her as a child, but a medical condition sidelined her plans. Now, living on disability and child support payments, even the dues her 8-year-old daughter owes as a Brownie Scout are a challenge. “Being poor, the stress level is really high,” the woman complains. “You are robbing Peter to pay Paul, and then Mary comes.”

A Burlington woman’s children are a handful, and her husband has a disability. She receives Temporary Aid to Needy Families and worries about managing her home life and a 40-hour job. She’s been out of the workplace so long she said she doesn’t have current computer skills or references. Without a car, she can’t even consider some job openings.

These are some of the stories of Vermont’s 62,281 needy — people with much less to give thanks for on this Thanksgiving Day. Their number and their plight worry policymakers as the state and country head into uncertain economic times.

Many low-income households struggle against forces seemingly beyond their control — health crises, economic globalization that wrenched good-paying, low-skill jobs from Vermont to overseas locations and decisions in far-off capitals that drive up fuel prices at neighborhood gas pumps.

“It’s not Third-World poverty, but kids go hungry and families need to make choices about what bills to pay,” says Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington. Pugh and Sen. Doug Racine, D-Chittenden, jointly lead the newly created Vermont Child Poverty Council, which has been holding hearings in every county to better understand the conditions faced by those who earn the least in this state. The council is charged with coming up with strategies to cut the state’s poverty rate in half in a decade.

Government shouldn’t ride to the rescue with more financial aid, warns John McClaughry, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a free-market think tank based in Kirby in Caledonia County.

“Most poverty can be traced to bad choices,” McClaughry argues. “Once you make bad choices, it gets harder and harder to dig out.”

He said it may sound hard-hearted, but many poor should be pressed to solve their own problems. “A whole bunch of the problem is in people’s minds,” he said. “There are always people who think life is giving them a bum deal. People don’t want to look back and say, ‘OK, I made a mess of my life.'”

McClaughry notes, too, that “poverty” in 2007 is richer than the poverty of 50 or 100 years ago. Poor people have televisions, microwaves, cars, cell phones — even as they pay for groceries with food stamps and live in subsidized apartments. “The poor family of 1960 would be astonished today.”

Statistically, the state’s poverty rate is declining, state officials report.

Still, 10.3 percent of the population live on incomes that are less than the federal government’s definition for poverty. That’s $20,000 for a family of four.

The nonpartisan Joint Fiscal Office of the Legislature calculates that to cover basic needs in 2007, a family of four requires annual income of $51,000 if the family lives in a rural region of the state and has employer-sponsored health coverage. The basic budget jumps to more than $64,000 for an urban family without health coverage through an employer.

The gap between what’s earned and what’s needed has been widening all fall as prices rise for gasoline, food and heating fuel. At least 1,300 more Vermonters have asked for help paying their fuel bills this winter compared with last winter. Food shelves report new clients seeking help to keep their households fed. The Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf in Burlington saw record-breaking numbers Nov. 7 with 193 people coming in for a week’s worth of groceries, 177 seeking just bread and produce, and more than 200 sitting down for a hot meal.

“Twenty years ago, the percentage of people seeking emergency services who had a full-time wage-earner was 20 percent. That number is now 45 percent,” said Tim Searles, executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.

“Work used to be offered up as the remedy,” he continued. “If people simply got jobs and worked, they wouldn’t be poor anymore. Welfare reform moved people off the welfare rolls into low-wage jobs, but not out of poverty.”

Sarah’s story

Sarah, 25, sat in a worn kitchen on a recent morning, her 2-year-old son fidgeting in her lap, and recounted her family’s close call with homelessness. She requested her last name not be published because her relatives don’t know the depth of the family’s money troubles.

Their financial free-fall began when her husband lost his $20-an-hour job as a roofer because the company closed abruptly. It was winter and there were no other roofing jobs available. Their bills mounted — especially the $725-a-month rent on the two-bedroom apartment in Burlington’s North End.

They fell three months behind on rent, then turned to the Committee on Temporary Shelter for help. They received two months’ rent to help them avoid eviction.

Sarah’s husband is back at work, but doesn’t earn what he did a year ago. The family still struggles.

“I’m behind on my electric,” she said. “The heat, we use it only when we have to. The lights, I try to keep them off. If it’s a really cold night, we keep the kids with us. We have a heating blanket.”

Their vehicles — a car and a truck — sit idle because the couple don’t have the money for repairs. “My husband bikes to work and bikes to get the groceries.”

Sometimes he skips lunch, she said, but enjoys a beer at night. Sarah admits she smokes. She recalls how they used to order pizza and take-out Chinese. Now, she said, “We pretty much have hamburger and something every night.”

Sarah tries to be optimistic about the future — which depends on her husband’s job advancement. “He’s working his way back up so things will be better soon,” she said. As for their dream of owning a home. “It has been pushed back.”

How about a break?

Alicia Ward of Newport works 24 hours a week as a home-health aid for $9.61 an hour and goes to school part time. Her goal is to become a registered nurse — a profession she hopes will be her ticket out of poverty.

Ward’s fiance works in construction, earning $10.25 an hour. Each has a car to get to work. Luckily, rent is much cheaper in the Northeast Kingdom than in Burlington. They pay just $475 a month for a three-bedroom apartment.

Their challenge is to cover the expenses associated with raising five children — his, hers and their 2-year-old. They take advantage of public assistance programs such as fuel aid, food stamps and subsidized health care, but live on the edge.

“I wish there was something out there that would help us transition,” Ward said. “There are gaps in the system.”

Medical crisis

Cynthia Hughes was the primary wage-earner for her family, providing a comfortable lifestyle and health coverage as a registered nurse at Fletcher Allen Health Care. Two older children were off to college and her younger daughters were in high school.

Then in December 2005, her then-16-year-old collapsed in cardiac arrest from a congenital heart condition, and life changed. Hughes tried to continue working, cutting down to part-time, but finally quit to split the care-taking responsibilities with her husband for the daughter at home and the daughter who underwent two major heart surgeries in Boston. The girl now has a pacemaker and an internal defibrillator.

“It was a shell-shock for the kids,” Hughes said of the family’s changed financial status. “There were no mall trips,” she said. Instead she taught the girls to make jewelry and cards for their friends. They entertained at home and asked friends to chip in for refreshments.

“I want to go back to work,” Hughes said, explaining that bills continue to mount despite some assistance paying back rent. She planned to start in December, but her daughter recently had another cardiac arrest — but was instantly revived by her internal defibrillator. Now the girl is scheduled for another heart procedure in December. Hughes sighs. “I just take it one day a time.”

Breaking the cycle

Rose Wheeler-Stillson of Barre set out to break the cycle of poverty in her family and nearly succeeded. She earned an associate degree so she could get a good job.

A medical condition now prevents her from working. She receives disability payments and has a subsidized housing certificate. “It’s not that I’m lazy, and it’s not that I’m stupid,” she said. “I can’t work, so I can’t get out (of poverty) that way.”

Wheeler-Stillson said it’s hard to be poor because people expect everyone to have money. Schools organize fund drives, for example, asking children like her 8-year-old daughter to sell holiday wrapping paper. “We are being asked to ask friends and family to buy things they can’t afford.”

“A lot of people in poverty feel invisible,” Wheeler-Stillson said.

Scared to work

Marcy Dedam of Burlington needs a family-friendly job, but it’s been four years since she’s been in the work force and a decade since she held the kind of office job for which she was trained in college.

Even if she found the right job, she has no car — it was repossessed years ago. She also worries whether she can juggle the demands of a 40-hour-week and her responsibilities at home. Her husband, 52, is disabled and can no longer work as a laborer. He never finished high school, so has few job options, Dedam said. Her sons have learning disabilities and lots of energy, so she said she shoulders most of the parenting responsibilities.

Dedam said poverty isolates people. She rarely left home until she learned about a program in Burlington called NeighborKeepers. Volunteer coaches are matched with people like Dedam to create circles of support. “You have a relationship with people who are middle-class,” she said. “You do things together. You set goals.”


NeighborKeepers is one small way to combat poverty, said Hal Colston, executive director. “To me, that’s how you break the cycle of poverty. You connect people.”

Carlen Finn, executive director of Voices for Vermont Children, advocates repairing and expanding the state’s social safety nets — such as the subsidized child care system. As long as the current economy features low-paying jobs, Finn says society needs to support the people who do that work.

McClaughry argues against more government spending because it hasn’t worked. He suggests society offer “some tough love on the subject of character, self-improvement, parental responsibility, wise shopping, clean living and the benefits of work.”

Racine, co-chairman of the Vermont Child Poverty Council, said he has ideas to share with the group when it begins talking about strategies to reduce poverty by half in a decade. His ideas include:

Replacing abrupt benefit cut-offs with phase-outs so people see work as worthwhile.

Linking people on public assistance with job training.

Doing more to help poor children prepare for school and keep up.

Making aid programs a budget priority.

“Underlying all of this is the need for a strong economy,” Racine concluded. “You can’t get people out of poverty simply by benefits. There have got to be jobs.”

Contact Nancy Remsen at 651-4888 or

« Back to News