The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Local News

December 12, 2013

Turns out words key to fighting poverty too

MERCER COUNTY — Attacking poverty locally is an overwhelming and consistently frustrating effort that first requires everyone involved to speak the same language, which would go a long way toward solving problems for both the poverty-stricken and the bureaucrats trying to help them, according to Ron Errett, director of the Mercer County Community Action Partnership agency.

Errett was a guest speaker at the United Way of Mercer County’s monthly planning meeting, a group of local business and agency leaders focused on finding the most effective way to spend donated dollars that would have the biggest impact on those struggling with poverty.

Alice Mattocks, chair of the committee, said she particularly likes the United Way of Erie County’s “Bold Challenge” of “reducing the number of families struggling to meet their basic needs by one-third before 2025” but wants the group here to fashion their own ideas of what goals they should have.

Errett said over the course of his career in helping those struggling financially, he’s seen what he calls “a very subtle nuance” of an attitude change. “Forty years ago I was hearing ‘show me the way out.’ And that’s not victim blaming. I just see a lot less of that motivation now,” he said.

He also said it used to be that the way out of poverty was a job. That isn’t necessarily so anymore, he added. With roughly 12 percent of the county’s 115,000 residents living at or below poverty, and dependent on varying degrees on government assistance, Errett said there have been times when he’s had to tell clients not to take a job.

“You work. Everybody should work. That’s the way we were raised, but in many cases, I really couldn’t justify telling someone to take a job when you know what’s going to be taken away from them once their income level goes up. They’ll get just enough to lose medical assistance for their kids or to not qualify for food stamps. It’s terrible advice to tell someone not to take a job, but it’s a job, not a career path. We know the system is backwards,” he said.

Part of his work at MCCAP involves community education and last fall his group partnered with the Community Food Warehouse of Mercer County to offer a first-hand look at what he calls “the tyranny of the moment” experienced by those who live in poverty.

“When you’re dealing with people who don’t have enough to eat today or can’t pay a utility bill today, it’s difficult to expect them to be thinking about next week, next month or two years from now,” he said. He quoted research studies suggesting that the brain patterns of economically-stressed people are clinically different from those who have a stable lifestyle.

Dick Miller, chief executive officer of Keystone Research Inc. in Greenville, said he believes all the talk about how to help the poor is “like spitting in the ocean” until a national assessment is done that prepares the country to move from an industrial to a technological society.

“Bank tellers and the people who work in Walmart cost us money,” he said. “There are 75 Walmarts in Wisconsin and each one costs us a million dollars a year to subsidize the people who work there. And we’re dumb enough to let this be thrust on us. We aren’t going to accomplish much here but we might keep it from getting worse, and that’s a worthy goal.”

Other members of the committee offered up various suggestions on specific language the agency could use when setting its goals, but debate whether the efforts ought to be focused on individuals, families or households. Much discussion centered on what constitutes a family and what efforts would be needed to encompass everyone living in a house.

Errett, who said his organization is undertaking a very similar effort early next year, cautioned that any efforts toward alleviating poverty requires a commitment to be “in it for the long haul.”

Particularly frustrating, he said, is the inability to share information among programs.

“Giant Eagle can track what I buy and when and give me coupons tailored to my shopping habits, but we can’t share basic information. We have to start a new file every time someone applies for a program and consequently people end up giving the same information over and over and over.

“You want to help? Give us one form, across the board, that everyone can use,” Errett said. “Give us one poverty level. I can think of four. People qualify for this, but not that. Use a different guideline and now they qualify for this, but lose that,” he said.

And never strive to eliminate poverty, he said, because that won’t happen. Measurable outcomes are possible, but in small numbers, he said.

He also believes parties on both sides of the aisle have the same goals and a common language is the first step in resolving differences.

“The tea party members say they want to see less people getting government services. So do I. We want the exact same thing. Now how do we get there?”

Mattocks said this year has been dedicated to gathering information from various agencies who provide services to the poor and in the coming months the group will form its own “bold” goals.


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