'Everything kind of fell apart': Demographics surrounding poverty in Lancaster County shatter myths
By Michael Deibert
(Read the original article here)
“Things were running pretty much smooth until my mom died last year," says Torbett, a 54-year-old computer repairmen and desktop support specialist who became disabled in 2010 due to a combination irritable bowel syndrome and vision problems.
“We were alternating the expenses month by month," Torbett says. “But when she died last year, I inherited all the taxes, the oil bill, the electric bill, and I was already in debt."
His is a story that has played out time and again throughout the region.
Outside of Lancaster city, where the rate is 29.2 percent, the highest rates of poverty are in the boroughs of Mountville (21.4 percent), Millersville (21.2 percent) and Columbia (20.4 percent), and the townships of Upper Leacock (15.6 percent), Lancaster (14.4 percent), Conoy (13.8 percent) and Fulton (13.0 percent).
“The truth is, 66 percent of the poverty (in Lancaster County) is outside the city," says Sue Suter, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Lancaster County. “And the face of poverty here is really a single white woman with children."
Though many seem to continue to visualize poverty as an urban — and, to be stark, non-white — problem in the region, the potential for rural residents to slide from paycheck to paycheck into desperation is one that knows no ethnic or geographic boundaries.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau the poverty rate in Pennsylvania was 13.3 percent in 2016, down slightly from 13.5 percent in 2015. It was 10.8 percent in Lancaster County in 2016, up slightly from 10.7 percent in 2015.
About 27 percent of the state's population — or roughly 3.4 million people — live in its 48 rural counties.
The federal government defines poverty as income below $12,060 for a single person, $16,240 for a family of two, $20,420 for a family of three, and $24,600 for a family of four.
When things fall apart
Gabriel is, like John Torbett, an example of how easily one can slide into poverty from a middle-class life.
A 50-year-old-bus driver with an 11-year-old daughter, Gabriel initially stayed in a motel for two weeks before moving in briefly with her sister and then finding her temporary housing.
At the transitional living site, residents pay electric, but not rent, through the Factory Ministries and Timberline Church. Factory Ministries is a Paradise-based program that acts as a hub for connecting people in need to various resources and services that also assisted John Torbett .
The Pennsylvania State Department of Public Welfare has thus far granted her help for child care and medical coverage (through Medicaid), but no cash assistance. She is waiting for a decision on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also commonly referred to as food stamps.
“It's been a very difficult time because my daughter is embarrassed," Gabriel says, wiping a tear away as she sits at the kitchen table of her small cabin, a cup of coffee evaporating its warmth in curls of steam in front of her.
“To see her go through this is hard, but it's going to get better and I'm out of the situation I was in,” she adds. “Getting out of that was the best thing I ever did. The Lord has been good to me through all of this."
Profile of poverty
The demographic outline of poverty in Lancaster County shatters many myths. According to numbers provided by the the Center for Rural Pennsylvania — a bipartisan legislative agency that serves as a resource for rural policy within the Pennsylvania General Assembly — 74 percent of those living in poverty in Lancaster County are white, while 58 percent are female.
Some 35 percent have at least a high school diploma and 17 percent have an associate’s degree or higher.
Far from being shirkers, 30 percent of those in poverty have full-time employment, while 23 percent work part time. The makeup of poor housheolds is also an amalgam, with 42 percent in single-person households and 38 percent in households with children.
Many of those on Medicaid also participate in the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly referred to as food stamps.
Lack of resources
“Poverty is about more than not having money, it's about lack of resources," says Chuck Holt, the president and CEO of The Factory Ministries. The organization is one of several here that attempt to centralize access to various services that the poor may need. Other entities include Pathways out of Poverty and the Elizabethtown Area Hub.
One chronic and continuing issue of rural poverty, both in Lancaster County and elsewhere, is the lack of connectedness with the larger world.
“If you look at Elizabethtown, eastern Lancaster County and the Quarryville area, those are three areas where you have a concentration of rural poverty, and one of the dynamics shared was transportation is a huge barrier," says Andrea L. Heberlein, the lead director of Collective Impact for the United Way of Lancaster Country.
“Residents had a hard time accessing services because they are located in (Lancaster) city," she says.
Impact of opioids
As with so many others facets of Pennsylvania life, the opioid epidemic has also hit the most vulnerable like a freight train. At least 155 people died of drug overdoses here in 2017, up from 117 the year before.
Though jobs are being created in the state's rural pockets, their pay remains punishingly low. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, per capita personal income in rural Pennsylvania counties was $40,938 in 2015, or $12,030 less than in urban counties.
And yet, through a patchwork of public and private services and their own pluck, those on the downside of economic advantage in Lancaster County continue to persevere.