Saturday, December 30, 2017

'Everything kind of fell apart': Demographics surrounding poverty in Lancaster County shatter myths

26 December 2017

'Everything kind of fell apart': Demographics surrounding poverty in Lancaster County shatter myths

By Michael Deibert


(Read the original article here)

The modest home that John Torbett used to share with his mother in Ronks in East Lampeter Township overlooks rolling hills and sloping fields, undulating bleached brown in the wan autumnal light.

“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."

Soon Torbett, a Delaware County native who had moved to Lancaster to take advantage of the lower cost of living, found himself tripping over the narrow precipice that separates the lower-middle class from the truly needy.

His is a story that has played out time and again throughout the region.

Nearly 60,000 of the county's 536,624 people are living below the poverty line. Their average age is 30.

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." 

Complex situation

Poverty in Lancaster County is a complex condition that does not lend itself to easy caricatures, its endurance prolonged by a variety of ancillary factors.

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
One of the women the United Way's Suter referred to is Brenda Gabriel. When she greeted a journalist recently, Gabriel was residing in a transitional living facility — a wooden cabin whose location, off a main road and nestled among trees overlooking a hollow where deer often bed down for the night, could fairly be described as bucolic.

Gabriel is, like John Torbett, an example of how easily one can slide into poverty from a middle-class life.

“Everything kind of fell apart," Gabriel says of her eviction from her home in September, at the end of a marriage in which she became the sole breadwinner after her husband, a salesman at an industrial cleaning products company, become disabled and attempted to collect disability.

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 . 

Seeking support

“This is not something I ever wanted to have to deal with, but I have to take care of my daughter," Gabriel says of the lugubrious process of forms and meetings that getting into the system of government financial aid entails.

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.

Finding regular accommodation has also not been easy in a county where landlords often requires that tenants earn three times the monthly rent.

“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.

According to the Census Bureau, 37 percent of rural households had incomes below $35,000. Among Pennsylvania counties, Lancaster hovers in the middle in its portion of residents eligible for medical assistance through Medicaid. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, 17.3 percent of the local population qualifies for Medicaid. And that number has been rising steadily over the last decade.

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.

“In rural poverty, homelessness looks different than in the city," says Holt. “We don't have people sleeping in the street, or shelters, we have doubling, tripling up, three families living in one place. Many are single moms with multiple kids. There's a growing Hispanic population. Some single dads, too."

One of those single dads, Josh Roten, a 35-year-old groundskeeper who lives in Peach Bottom and struggles to support himself and his 9-year-old son, points to another factor present in this strata: A strong sense of alienation from politicians and the political process itself.
“Have you ever tried to call a politician?" asks Roten, who voted for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, as he smokes a cigarette outside on his porch while his son arrives home from school in the gathering dusk. “They don't return calls, their voicemails are full … . They ignore us. Politicians never listen to us, they don't care what we think until their position depends on us." 

Battling isolation

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.

Holt echoes Heberlein’s comments.

“If you're down here, there's no public transportation. The bus runs routes 30 and 340, and not all day long," Holt says. “In Pequea Valley, there was only one laundromat, and that burned down three months ago."

In addition, the Factory Ministries in Paradise runs the only food pantry for 80 square miles. 

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.
“Our cases continue to increase in their complications," says Jessica L. Laspino, executive director of CASA of Lancaster County. The seven-year-old organization trains and supervises court-appointed volunteer advocates who work with children in the foster care system, of which there are around 500 on any given day.

“In a lot of the (families) we've been working with, the layers seem to have increased,” Laspino says. “It's not just one or two factors working against the family, it's multiple factors.

“The opioid epidemic has a great impact on the youth we work with," Laspino continues. “You have more young people who are drug addicted and more coming into care because addiction has ravaged the family. So has the lack of adorable housing.

“Parents that did the work and addressed issues still cannot provide safe and stable housing for their kids to return home to, so you have parents who have done the work but kids still languishing in foster care," Laspino says. 

Low-paying jobs

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.

During the same year, more than 1,000 more people fell into poverty in Lancaster County than during the year before, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

“Regardless of what the subject is, when you're talking about rural PA you always have to address the issues of lack of population density and geographic isolation," says Barry L. Denk, the director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

“If you don't have the numbers to aggregate, the return on investment, both from public and private, becomes questionable."


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.

John Torbett is looking for part-time work in his field of computer repair and recently adopted a small cat, Paulette, who prowls around his house and keeps watch.

Brenda Gabriel, after months of searching, recently found an apartment she could afford and moved into it with her daughter to great the new year.

Despite her struggles, Gabriel, who now has a financial coach and regularly attends counseling and church at The Factory, is envisioning a happier future story.

“I would like to have a little house for my daughter and I, to have my job — I love my job — and to support her in the things she wants to do."

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