Ithaca Journal, May 3, 2008: Finding a path out of poverty

Posted on

By Krisy Gashler

Journal Staff

At 17, Jessica Brown was living in a subsidized efficiency apartment above a liquor store in Trumansburg with her newborn baby.

Now 26, she is out of poverty, no longer dependent on social services and living with her daughter and fianc̩ in their own home in Ithaca.

Brown doesn’t call herself a success story, and she doesn’t credit her escape from poverty to the five semesters she spent at Tompkins Cortland Community College, the 45 hours a week she works or the friends who supported her through bad times.

It’s all luck, she says, and many people aren’t so lucky.

While Brown credits luck, other Tompkins County residents who have faced poverty and escaped say the path out for them was social service programs, a good job, education, a support system or simple perseverance.

No matter the path, the numbers show there is a way out.

Since The Journal began its series examining poverty in our community more than a year ago, the poverty rate reported by the U.S. Census Bureau has declined slightly, from 20.7 percent of county residents in 2005 to 18.1 percent in 2006. The federal government considers a family of four in poverty if they earned $21,200 or less in 2008.

The story is similar nationally. In census data reported last August, the poverty rate fell from 12.6 to 12.3 percent of Americans.

Those numbers, however, are already more than a year old, and the recent economic downturn accompanied with skyrocketing costs for housing, health care and gasoline clearly makes life harder for those at the bottom.

But the good news, based on longitudinal census data, is that most people don’t stay at the bottom for long.

According to the U.S. Census’ 1999 Survey of Income and Program Participation, the most recent and complete survey that tracks individuals’ monthly incomes over time, between 1996 and 1999 roughly 34.2 percent of the U.S. population was poor for at least two months.

But only 2 percent were poor for the entire four years.

In fact, the survey found that of those who experience poverty, roughly half endure “poverty spells” of only two to four months.

Some people have more than one spell, notes Sharon Stern, chief of the poverty and health statistics branch of the U.S. Census Bureau, and it’s difficult to track whether those whom the census counts as leaving poverty are actually leaving poverty or just hovering above the line.

“If the line were 25 percent higher, would we see (chronic poverty) among 10 percent of the population?” Stern asked. “That’s a really good question that I don’t have an answer to.”

Is it policy or personal?

In Tompkins County, tens of millions of dollars are spent each year combating poverty, including almost $9 million in food assistance, more than $9 million in housing and $75.7 million for health care.

Many of those who propose to reduce poverty say they need even more money to do it. But suggestions about how to use that money vary widely, from increasing social services and the minimum wage to encouraging education and marriage.

At its core, opinions about reducing poverty come down to whether you believe the problem is with the system or with personal responsibility.

The Center for American Progress, a progressive national think tank, advocates 12 policy changes that it says could cut poverty in half in 10 years. It says four in particular could reduce poverty by 26 percent: raising the minimum wage; expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, which subsidizes low-wage work through a tax refund; increasing the Child Tax Credit; and subsidizing child care for low-wage workers.

Joy Moses, a policy analyst and attorney who has focused on homeless issues at the Center for American Progress, said that for some individuals in poverty, work simply doesn’t pay.

“When people are actually paid a decent wage and can get some value out of work, they are encouraged and supported in doing so,” Moses said.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative national think tank, advocates three policy changes to reduce poverty: reducing legal and illegal immigration of poor, low-skilled workers; encouraging full-time work among the poor; and encouraging marriage.

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and one of the key participants in the 1996 federal welfare reform, said that on average poor families with children perform about 800 hours of paid work per year, or roughly 16 hours a week.

“No matter what your wage rate is, if you’re only working on average 16 hours a week, you’re not gonna have very much income,” Rector said.

Rector said that for individuals in poverty, “the principal barriers to achieving the American dream are self-inflicted, self-destructive behaviors,” such as out-of-wedlock birth, substance abuse and low levels of employment.

“Until we’re willing to recognize that it’s this self-destructive behavior rather than some artificial external barrier that is the principal reason people are in poverty, we’re not gonna make any progress at all,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that you abandon the individual, but you have to primarily focus on changing those behaviors.”

Moses had a different take.

“Certainly there are people living in poverty who can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and achieve the American dream. However, we need to recognize as a society that those people who are starting from the bottom have far more barriers to achieving that American dream than people who start from the middle or start from the high incomes,” she said. “The goal of public policy should be about reducing those barriers and making sure that more people have avenues to achieving the American dream, that they just have access to opportunity.”

Different avenues

Gaining access to opportunity figuratively and literally was one of the hardest things about growing up in poverty in rural Enfield, Brown said.

“Transportation was a really big deal,” she said. “My dad would sometimes drive us places, but for the most part we wouldn’t go to the school functions and we wouldn’t do sports and we wouldn’t do those things because it just cost too much money.”

At 9 years old when her parents divorced, Brown was expected to care for her two younger brothers, a task she says she didn’t mind but one that took most of her free time. The responsibility, she said, prepared her to care for her own baby when she became pregnant at 16.

Cassandra Howard’s story is similar to Jessica Brown’s. Both women fell into poverty when they became pregnant as teenagers. Both extensively utilized social service programs that paid for things such as housing, food, even higher education.

And both women are now homeowners: Brown moved into her home with fianc̩ Joshua Ganger a year ago, and Howard, using a voucher that subsidizes her housing, moved into a new house in March.

In spite of their similarities, their opinions about the causes of poverty, and the pathway out, couldn’t be more different.

A single mother of two, Howard said she fell into poverty when she got pregnant at 18.

“I was young and in and out of school, of college. I was in an abusive relationship. At one point, I lost custody of my son,” she said.

With support from her mother, utilization of all available social services and a huge amount of hard work, Howard said she pulled her life and her family back together.

Until last month, she lived in an Ithaca apartment subsidized by a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher. She moved into her new home in Freeville on March 25.

The voucher goes with her to the house in Freeville. She’ll continue to pay 30 percent of her income for housing, and the federal voucher will subsidize her mortgage and help her build equity until her income level allows her to support herself.

Howard used a social service program to pay for school at Tompkins Cortland Community College and earned her associate’s degree in early childhood education. Now she hopes to run a daycare out of her home.

“The job market is very hard,” Howard said. “But if you up your education and you get knowledgeable about what’s out there, you can do it. And I just think you really have to be motivated and say that this is the way you want your life.”

Brown, who no longer relies on any social services, argues the idea that those in poverty can pull themselves up by their bootstraps is “a myth” and that those who escape poverty as she has done are lucky, not smarter or harder working than those who remain in poverty.

Brown works 35 hours a week for Family and Children’s Service of Ithaca and 10 hours for the Tompkins County Workers’ Center.

While she feels fortunate to be out of poverty now, Brown says that for her, as for anyone, she’s one layoff away from being poor again.

“The answer lies not in studying hard, working hard, because the problem is not that poor people are lazy and stupid, the problem is that the system is designed to prey on people. Masses of people,” she said.

Education, for example, is not a cure-all because the modern American economy is dependent on low-paid workers to do things like bag groceries and clean hotel rooms, Brown argued.

“I’m wearing a T-shirt today that says, some girls are just born lucky,’ and I think that’s really the secret to why I’m not so desperately poor. I have really good friends and family, but that’s not an answer. That’s kept me sane, but it hasn’t kept me out of poverty,” she said.

Howard thinks her support system is exactly what’s helping her out of poverty, and when asked to offer advice to others struggling in poverty it was one of the first things she named.

“Make sure you have a support system. It doesn’t have to be family. It could be anyone that you’re comfortable with,” she said.

In explaining how she came back from the very bottom, losing custody of her child, Howard said she couldn’t have done it without her mother, Kathy Landes.

“(It) took about a year to get everything straight, but me and my mom worked it out,” Howard said. “I did what I had to do, finished school and got a job, got a place to live and got stable. Worked a lot.”

Howard said she doesn’t think the way out of poverty is through luck; it’s through the solid support of a safety net of social services and most importantly, personal motivation.

“You could easily inherit money and blow it away in a week and be back in poverty,” she said. “You have to be motivated. I have been motivated, not just for myself, mostly it was for myself and my kids, but it was also for the people who are out there (who didn’t believe she could pull herself out of poverty),” Howard said.

The solution to poverty, Brown said, is for poor and low-wage workers to organize and support each other.

“We have such a divide between people who are working low-wage jobs (and) get off work and talk shit about people who are on welfare. And it’s like, that’s the divide and conquer thing that keeps everybody poor,” she said.

When asked what they would say to someone still struggling in poverty, the women’s answers reflect their philosophical differences about the pathway out of poverty. Both suggest the importance of hard work and dedication, but for Howard the emphasis is on changing the individual and for Brown the stress is on changing the system.

“Say to yourself that, This is what I want to do. I want to get out of poverty,'” Howard said.

“I would say that you are absolutely not alone,” Brown said. “You absolutely do not deserve the treatment that you’re getting, and we need to work together to do something about it.”

« Back to News