Chicago Tribune, February 20, 2008: Taste of poverty proves enlightening

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By Dahleen Glanton

Tribune correspondent

February 20, 2008


As a state child welfare worker, Vicky Darley sees people every day who cannot pay their bills and struggle to hold their families together. But she did not really understand what they go through until she walked in the shoes of Emily Epperman.

As part of an innovative program to give policymakers firsthand knowledge of what it is like to be poor, Darley is among more than 2,500 people in Georgia who have participated in a simulation program called “Step Up Savannah.”

For one day, a bank president, a school principal and even the mayor have put their titles aside and played roles such as an unemployed spouse with a baby on the way, an elderly man on a fixed income — or in Darley’s case, the fictitious Epperman, a single mother with two unruly teenagers.

22 percent in poverty

Savannah is a tourist city known for its Southern charm and easygoing lifestyles — traits that often mask the fact that 22 percent of its residents live in poverty and nearly 35 percent of households earn less than $20,000 a year.

During a time when fears are mounting that the country is heading into a recession, experts said, times will only get worse for the 36.5 million Americans who live in poverty.

“We are in the South, the poorest region in the country,” said Mayor Otis Johnson, who made poverty a priority when he took office in 2004. “There is a history of lack of opportunity, discrimination and certain economic factors that all come together to make certain segments of the population live in persistent poverty.”

In an auditorium transformed into a small town with a bank, a grocery store, a school and other government offices, state employees such as Darley recently were forced to work their way through the red tape that real people often encounter.

She would have to figure out a way to pay for transportation, buy groceries, pay for child care and pay her rent until she found a job, something in very limited supply.

“It was so frustrating,” said Darley, who provides temporary assistance to needy families in Savannah. “I tried to follow the rules but I ended up using money my daughter had gotten selling drugs to pay my rent. I couldn’t even get help from [the Department of Child and Family Services], and that’s where I work.”

Such scenarios are being played out in real life every day in Savannah and across America, according to Johnson.

The key, the mayor said, is to get the business community involved in addressing the problem. But first, he said, they have to understand it. That means bringing the public and private sectors together.

“Many of our business leaders have gone through the simulation exercise, and many in that group were just blaming the victims,” Johnson said. “Now that they see how tough it is to maneuver through this maze that poor people have to maneuver through, they are more sensitive to it.”

According to Daniel Dodd, project director for Step Up, the goal is to reduce poverty by 60 percent by 2010 in Chatham County census tracts where the rate is highest. But the program is as much about changing attitudes about poverty as reducing it. The program is provided by the Missouri Association for Community Action, but agencies tailor it to fit their communities.

“We are not going to eradicate poverty but we can reduce it,” Dodd said. Some progress has been made in generating new jobs, he said, although much of that is due to efforts by the city.

Step Up is the result of a collaboration of business, government, educational and non-profit agencies in Chatham County that came together in 2003 to address the city’s persistent poverty.

The city’s economic growth had been hindered by a high poverty rate that had spanned 30 years, officials said.

“There have been a lot of misconceptions that poor people are lazy or not smart enough. It’s a cultural thing,” Dodd said. “But as more people come here, it gets harder to hide these problems. Crime will spill out.”

Another component of the program is job training. The payoff for businesses, Dodd said, is that they will have a more educated and better-prepared work force, which makes Savannah attractive to new industry.

Stephanie Gray, 38, a divorced mother of four, was able to turn her life around after participating in the program in 2006. Gray fell behind in her rent and was nearly homeless after her husband left her. Then she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, which left her disabled.

Like many Americans, Gray, a cosmetologist, was living paycheck to paycheck. When she could no longer work, her life took a downward spiral.

“I felt like my life was pretty much at an end,” said Gray. “I stayed depressed a lot. It was a big emotional roller coaster. I was about to lose it.”

A partner

Step Up partnered her with Debbie Lane, a Savannah businesswoman, whom Gray credits with helping her get on the right track. They worked out a budget to pay off her $8,000 debt, helped her clear up credit issues and helped the family settle into an apartment. Now, Gray is in the process of purchasing a home.

“You get to do the legwork yourself, but Step Up provides a network to help you. They connected me to the right place to get a loan and make it happen,” said Gray.

According to Sheldon Danziger, co-director of the National Poverty Center at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, poverty has not been a high priority in the United States for 25 years.

As President Bush and Congress work to provide rebates to citizens in hopes of jump-starting the sluggish economy, jobs will be essential to helping the poor through a recession, according to Danziger.

“It is an old sound bite but it is often true, the last hired are the first fired,” said Danziger. “Basically, earnings are the most important source of family income for just about everybody except the elderly.”

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When ends don’t meet

In a simulation presented by Step Up Savannah, here’s one fictitious family’s plight:

*Emily Epperman, 31, was recently deserted by the father of her two children, Ellen, 15, and Ed, 14. She worked as a salesclerk until her first pregnancy.

*Family rents a three-room apartment in a low-income neighborhood. Husband left Emily with $10 in cash and nothing in the bank. Family relies on public transportation.

*Income: None. Must apply for food stamps and temporary assistance from the Department of Children and Family Services.

*Monthly Expenses: Rent $275, Gas and electric $180, Telephone $18, Clothing $25, Food $75, Miscellaneous $25, Loan payments $120.

Source: Missouri Association for Community Action

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