The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Local News

July 17, 2014

Board looking for answers

United Way ponders how to fight poverty

MERCER COUNTY — Months of gathering information from those on the forefront of working with the poor has left United Way of Mercer County board members more certain than ever that poverty is the issue to tackle, but the nitty, gritty work of setting a bold, yet attainable goal is just beginning.

Board member and chair of the planning committee arm of the United Way of Mercer County, Sharon Sorg said she wants members to develop some specific goals in the next month of how to reduce poverty, but wants those goals to be something attainable.

The publisher of The Herald and New Castle News, Sorg said she relates the poverty-reduction goals to work done within a business.

Speaking to about 15 members of the county’s business and industry leaders, Sorg said, “Some United Ways across the nation have set a goal of reducing poverty by 35 percent. This is a monumental undertaking. We need to set a goal locally that we can meet.”

For the last 18 months, United Way leaders have listened to providers detail the challenges they face in getting help – both financial and otherwise – into the hands of those who need it. The agency is looking for the best way to spend its nearly $800,000 it collects in donations annually.

“We know poverty is the issue we want to take on. But we need to narrow down the approach,” Sorg said.

Past speakers to the planning committee have included the agency directors from The Salvation Army, Children’s Aid Society, district justices from Farrell, Greenville, Hermitage and Sharon, directors of local food pantries, and local educators and pastors. Each has described for the United Way committee the struggles they face not only in getting the word out about their programs, but how red tape and bureaucracy often prevent the poor from looking to better themselves or take steps to get off welfare and public assistance.

During Tuesday’s meeting, local bankers took the opportunity to explain how the poor are often ignorant or worse, fearful, of benefits that banks can offer.

Melissa O’Polka, representing Citizens National Bank, said she strives to let people know about the “One Deposit” program.

“Even if they just deposit one dollar, they’ve established a bank account with us. We can cash checks for them. We can help with building or repairing credit scores. All the way up to estate planning,” she said.

What she hates to see are people who can least afford it using Wal-Mart or other quick-loan places to cash checks. “Because they take a hefty percentage of that check just for cashing it. And those are the people who can least afford to give up any of that check,” she said.

Other committee members agreed that those in poverty often have a mistrust of banks and “the government” in general.

“Maybe they’ve had a bad feeling in the past in the bank. Maybe something happened where they have bad credit. Maybe they think their money will be garnished if they have a lien. I think there is a tremendous amount of education that has to be done here,” Sorg said.

Money management is one area where educators and bankers alike are seeing a huge dearth of knowledge.

One Thiel College philosophy professor said his students, many of whom are ready to graduate, have no idea how to balance a checkbook or understand the intricacies of financing their first car.

“And these are for the most part, extremely privileged, bright kids who come from parents of some means,” said Arthur “Buddy” White.

“It’s easy to think ‘everybody knows’ when it comes to issues of personal finance. Well, no, they don’t. It seems the more important it is, the less we talk about it,” White said.

Randy Beck, a deacon at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sharon, said he thinks of people in poverty locally as similar to families surviving the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

“These are people who will do whatever it takes to live. It’s not necessarily a total lack of resources but a lack of ability to use those resources properly,” he said.

Dr. George Garrow, an oncologist with Sharon Regional Health System, said he’s been interested for some time in reaching out to provide care to the less fortunate.

“The key,” he said, “is figuring out how to relate to them so they’ll listen. In most cases, we don’t look like them. I doubt they would go to a bunch of skinny, white guys in ties with a lot of confidence and trust.

“One of our goals has to be to reach them in a way they will relate to,” he added. “I think they use the Walmart system to cash their checks because it works for them. We make it uncomfortable for them.”

Brad Gosser, a Greenville-Reynolds businessman, said that to be effective the United Way must get the community to buy in to the list of needs.

“Then we take those list of needs to our partner agencies and to the community. We have to start moving this synergy through the county. Let’s put together our list of needs and that will help us identify our “bold goal.”

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