By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
You don’t have to look far to see the faces of poverty in Mercer County. They’re likely to be those who are ringing up your purchases at Walmart or Giant Eagle, or maybe cleaning the restroom at your child’s school. And by all accounts, those folks and hundreds more are the same ones lining up at local food pantries and calling for help when an already stretched budget snaps.
With an eye first aimed at identifying the impoverished and a later goal of reducing those numbers, the board of directors of the United Way of Mercer County, which includes local business leaders, health-care providers, the heads of charitable organizations and community leaders and educators, met Monday afternoon as part of an ongoing effort to learn about the daily struggles of thousands of county residents.
Among the guest speakers were Salvation Army Capt. Scott Flanders, who along with Marta Nagel, a caseworker for the Sharon-based church, told the audience about a handful of people they’ve helped in recent weeks.
“I talked with a mother who is one of three generations living in the same house. She works 25 hours a week, for minimum wage. That’s not enough to live on,” Flanders said. “She gets food stamps and that helps. But in her 30s, she is still forced to live with her parents, because she is what we politely consider ‘underemployed.’
“She works for $8 an hour. She thinks she could make it if she had a job that paid about $12 an hour and she could work 40 hours. But where can she find that job?” Flanders said.
Another woman, he said, is 58 years old and is disabled. “She was using the entirety of her Social Security disability check by mid-month, paying people to take her around to where she had to go, to run errands and keep appointments. And by the time she did that, she had no money for groceries,” he said.
The Salvation Army connected her with a caseworker from the Behavioral Health Commission and she was able to get transportation, instead of paying friends to taxi her around.
The Salvation Army has a food giveaway every Tuesday morning. “It begins at 11 a.m. and people start lining up well before 8 a.m. They stand outside in all kinds of weather – rain, snow, freezing cold, blistering hot, whatever, just to get some day-old bread and produce. What does that say?” Flanders asked. He encouraged board members to drive by the Salvation Army building on Fisher Hill to look.
The last Thursday of every month is when it offers “the big food giveaway, which includes fresh produce, meat, canned goods and things like that. We see about 840 people for that,” he added. Right now, he said, “we’re in the middle of Christmas signups and about 15 percent of the people who signed up are people who have never reached out for help before.”
And it isn’t just food that is a big problem for those living paycheck-to-paycheck, he said. “The police know where I live. They often stop by when they have someone who is homeless, and they’re asking if I can help. We’re seeing a big increase in those numbers. And of course, it increases substantially in the winter,” he said.
Stereotypes and misconceptions about who the “poor” are continue to plague communities, said Nagel, who thinks an important goal of the group ought to be to restore a sense of hope to those who struggle just to get by.
“Not everyone is lazy. There is the idea that those receiving services are kicking back watching a big-screen TV and getting handouts because they are too lazy to work. That’s just not true. Our clients are working, but working at jobs that just don’t pay enough to survive,” she said.
One emergency, or even minor inconvenience, can be devastating, said Laura Duesenberry, who heads the Salvation Army in Greenville. “I have a family where the dad has had the same job for 15 years. His take-home pay for a family of six is $724 every two weeks. He works at the school.
“This family doesn’t come every month for food, but they come when they have to. Right now, for example, he’s riding a bike to work because the car broke down and they don’t have the $250 for the part to fix it,” she said.
Affordable housing in the Greenville area is a particularly troublesome area, she said. “I looked at the paper this morning. A three-bedroom house is $475 plus utilities. For people making minimum wage, there is just no way to make it. Not when electric costs you $250 a month and gas is another $150. These folks are just barely making it, they’re working hard and just barely making it. There’s no luxuries there,” Duesenberry said.
Flanders, who has been in the Shenango Valley for about a year, and Nagel, who has been involved with the Salvation Army and who was once a recipient of its services, said they see a change on the horizon and not for the better.
“There is an attitude change. People are giving up. There used to be a sense of ‘If I did this or that, then I could get off welfare.’ Now, people have the sense that they have to just keep working the system, that they’ve gone as far as they could go and this is as good as it’s going to get,” Nagel said.
“A Walmart job is not enough to move anyone out of poverty. The key is education. And we know that. But how do we show people that? It’s very difficult to convince someone that more is out there when they can’t see it.
“It’s too easy when you are struggling and being subsidized to see where you might go. You get resigned to staying where you are at,” she said.
“It’s not laziness. It becomes apathy,” Nagel said.
Flanders said he is often surprised at what young people don’t know, when it comes to making ends meet. “They literally don’t know you have to sweep before you can mop. In the sense that you see people using Access cards at Sheetz to buy sandwiches. It isn’t necessarily that they are abusing the system. They simply do not know how to cook,” he said.
In the coming months, the Salvation Army plans to begin a program teaching people how to make meals, plan ahead and shop for groceries.
“Now, they may be given a can of tuna, a bag of noodles and a can of cream of mushroom soup and they have no idea they can make a casserole with it. We need to teach them these things, to instill a sense of accomplishment in them. And now we’re seeing three generations of families who have not learned these things,” Flanders said.
Mary Ann Reeher, director of The Good Shepherd Center in Greenville, said applying for assistance has almost become “a rite of passage” for young people starting out. “They come in my office and say they’ve just gotten a place and the girl is pregnant and they’ve signed up for welfare and now want to sign up with us.
“We’re just a Band-Aid and we know it. I see a lot of poor choices, poor planning and poor judgment. I agree that they don’t know they have to sweep before they mop,” she said.
The number of homeless has nearly doubled in the last two years, she said, as have meals given out at the soup kitchen.
The board also discussed the problems of getting word out about programs that are available and the difficulty in getting people to classes that could help those struggling manage better.
Reeher said her organization offered classes on nutrition and budgeting and even offered free gift cards to those who attended but still attendance was poor. “I don’t know how we grab them, how we get them to come out,” she said.