Defining poverty difficult, but essential to fighting region epidemic

2014-06-08T00:00:00Z 2014-06-13T16:44:09Z Defining poverty difficult, but essential to fighting region epidemicMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
June 08, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Tina, a 36-year-old mother of three in South Haven, defines it as the fight to find work when every broken-down car means another lost employment opportunity.

Glen Ellis, 56, knows it as the struggle to find a job while living in a Gary homeless shelter and being haunted by a felony drug conviction.

Say the word "poverty," and most people form individualized pictures in their minds illustrating it.

North Township Deputy Trustee Jane Dudley sees poverty as the 18,304 people living in her north Lake County township who received help from her office in 2013 in the form of rent, utility payments or other relief.

To the federal government, it's a strict definition of dollars and cents based on the number of people living in a household and the level of income that must be spread around to sustain those people.

Under the 2014 federal guidelines of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a family of four earning $23,850 or less is considered to be living below the poverty line.

An individual earning $11,670 or less also is considered to be in poverty under those guidelines.

The government and social service agencies continue to struggle with an adequate definition. Understanding who's poor, and how they got that way, is crucial to determining how to respond to the issue, government and nonprofit officials seem to agree.

Critics of the federal definition believe current income thresholds don't account for the actual wages needed to support a family.

The United Way, a nationally recognized nonprofit agency, is challenging the federal definition with a new study that seeks to identify the wage levels in each county in the country at which families and individuals can survive.

However it's defined, poverty abounds in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.

From the homeless to the working poor, the region has higher percentages of poor residents who depend on various types of aid than nearly every other corner of the state.

Dubious distinction

Though heaviest in Lake County's northern urban core, poverty also exists in high percentages in some parts of Porter and LaPorte counties, 2012 U.S. Census estimates show.

It's a dubious distinction in Northwest Indiana: In all, 13 cities and towns spanning Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties have higher percentages of poverty than the nation.

Nationally, about 15 percent of Americans live in poverty, according to 2012 U.S. Census estimates. In Lake County, that number climbs to nearly 20 percent; in LaPorte County, 17 percent.

In Lake County, six communities have higher percentages of people living in poverty than the national average: Gary, East Chicago, Hammond, Lake Station, Merrillville and Schneider.

LaPorte County is home to five municipalities with higher percentages of poverty than the nation: Michigan City, LaPorte, Westville, Michiana Shores and Kingsford Heights.

Two communities with higher percentages of poverty than the nation as a whole are in Porter County: Valparaiso and Town of Pines.

Leading the way is Gary, where nearly 39 percent of residents live below the federally defined poverty line, according to 2012 U.S. Census estimates.

East Chicago, with about 36 percent of its residents defined as poor by the federal government, has the second-highest percentage of poverty of all region municipalities. In 2012, 40 percent of its residents relied on federal food stamps for sustenance — the highest among all region cities and towns.

LaPorte County's Michigan City rounded out the top three in the region, with nearly 29 percent of its residents living in poverty.

Working in the kitchen of the Bakery House, a Gary faith-based homeless shelter for men, 56-year-old Glen Ellis in January said he had been living there on and off since 2009. In all that time, he had only been able to work occasional seasonal jobs, he said. Finding work has been a challenge since his release from the Westville prison about six years ago following a felony drug conviction.

The shelter offers him a roof, structure through daily chores, and a place to stay while looking for other work.

The working poor

People who work full-time jobs but get paid so little they can't support themselves or their families make up a larger percentage of local poverty statistics than ever before, said region township trustees and the leaders of several region nonprofit agencies that provide help to the poor.

Speaking from the South Haven-based Gabriel's Horn women's shelter in April, Tina who asked that her last name not be used, said she is finding out what the term "working poor" really means.

College-educated and well-spoken, Tina moved into the shelter in April after a tumultuous economic year for her family.

In October 2013, her position as an executive assistant for a Portage-based employer was downsized.

She found herself looking for a new means of paying the mortgage on her Valparaiso home and supporting her three children, ages 12 through 15.

Tina eventually lost her home to foreclosure. Her three children moved in with their grandparents, and Tina moved into the Gabriel's Horn shelter.

Though she obtained a $12-per-hour, part-time job as a receiving clerk for a Portage manufacturing company in mid-April, she said she lost it almost immediately, because she had no transportation to get to work.

By early May, Tina said it was a pattern that had repeated itself through multiple broken-down cars and taxi fares she couldn't afford leading to lost job interviews and offers.

"Sometimes the stress is so much that it really messes with you," Tina said. Sometimes, it's hard to figure out what you're supposed to do with it all."

Overcoming the 'cliff effect'

Some region officials believe the working poor are more apt to fall through the safety net because of the strict federal definition of poverty and who is — and is not — eligible for federal aid, such as food stamps.

The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, which distributes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, or food stamps, in the state, notes households earning 30 percent above the federal poverty guidelines or less are eligible for the program.

Under those guidelines, a family of four with a total household income of $31,005 or less would be eligible for food stamps.

Leaders of some charitable agencies, including the United Way, criticize the federal thresholds as being too low, noting families and individuals can earn considerably more than the threshold and still struggle to provide for themselves and their families.

The United Way, which has developed the ALICE Project — asset-limited, income-constrained and employed — is seeking to redefine poverty based on actual livable wages within each county in the country.

Darren Bickel, vice president of community investment for United Way of Elkhart County, argues the federal definition leaves a number of hardworking people and their families stranded at a time when they need more help overcoming poverty. Bickel, whose agency is helping coordinate the statewide ALICE study, called it the "cliff effect."

"What we find is that many people who are trying to get out of poverty and begin working their way up to a 40-hour-a-week job — even if it's low paying — begin to go above the federal poverty threshold," Bickel said.

"Then, very abruptly, things like food stamps and vouchers begin to fall off right away" — sometimes, before people are financially stable enough to deal with it, Bickel said.

"There is a need for an accurate measure of what it costs to live in the United States at a basic level," a United Way document pertaining to the ALICE Project states.

"The federal poverty level does not provide that."

Developed in the 1960s, it does not account for variances in costs of living in geographic areas across the country.

Lou Martinez, Lake County-based Lake Area United Way president and CEO, said an Indiana-specific study is underway and is slated to be published by late summer.

Worst of the worst

No matter how poverty is defined, the government and nonprofit agencies charged with aiding the poor agree Northwest Indiana's numbers are among the worst of the worst in some important categories.

For instance, staggering numbers of region households earn wages far below even strict federal poverty thresholds and depend on food stamps.

In both Gary and East Chicago, one in five households in 2012 earned $10,000 or less in wages, putting those households below even the strict federal threshold of $11,670 for individuals.

Michigan City had the third-highest percentage in that category, with 14 percent of its households earning $10,000 annually or less.

In addition to having the region's highest percentage of poverty, 34 percent of Gary residents relied on food stamps in 2012; in East Chicago, 40 percent rely on food stamps, as noted earlier.

The Lake Area United Way's Martinez said defining poverty more accurately will help the region — and nation — devise possible solutions.

"We need something that shows us the basic costs and needs of survival," Martinez said.

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