Akron Beacon Journal (Ohio)
By: Dave Scott
March 11, 2012
Programs try to pave a path out of poverty
Chiffawn Dawkins of Akron remembers the day she answered her son's toughest question.
He asked her why was she just 13 when he was born.
"Mom, I thought you told me teenagers having sex was a no-no?" she recalled the then-9-year-old asking. "I felt, 'Oh I contradicted myself. How am I going to explain this to him?' All I told him was that what I did was wrong. I wouldn't trade you away for nothing in the world. If you ask me if I could go back to change the hands of time, I'd tell you I can change everything up until I had my son. I love him to death."
Dawkins followed a frequently traveled path to poverty and now, at age 31, she is still fighting to become self-sufficient.
It's a familiar story for Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution. She is a former member of the Clinton administration and co-author of Creating an Opportunity Society.
She says there are three keys to understanding and getting out of poverty: work, education and a family life that avoids out-of-wedlock babies.
"If you just do three things, one is graduation from high school," Sawhill said. "Number two is work full time. It doesn't matter if it is a low-wage job, if you work full time you will get certain [assistance] from the government. Thirdly, if you can marry or have a long-term commitment from another adult before you have children, that's the third critical piece. It's very hard to climb out of poverty if you are a single parent."
Hard, but not impossible, and Dawkins is giving it a try.
She enrolled and graduated from Getting Ahead classes, part of the Bridges Out of Poverty program that aims to give poor people the awareness and wisdom needed to break the cycles that keep them down.
Taking responsibility is a big part of that.
"You gotta want to get out of poverty," Dawkins said. "You gotta want something in life. You gotta want a future."
So far, Summit County has 240 people who have completed the 14-session Getting Ahead curriculum for a total of about 40 hours each. Another 1,750 social-work professionals have completed the related Bridges Out of Poverty program.
The complete name of the course is Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin'-By World and it begins by identifying the hidden rules of people in poverty, the middle class and wealth. It also makes key distinctions between generational poverty - those whose families have been poor for generations - and those who are situationally poor because of lost jobs, disabilities, illness or other reasons.
Participants are asked to discuss attitudes people have toward education, personality, humor and destiny and how those attitudes direct their lives.
For example, the section on destiny says the impoverished believe in fate and think they can't do much to mitigate chance. The middle class are said to believe in choice and that they can change their future with good choices. The wealthy are said to accept their place in society and act accordingly.
Included is a diagram of the complicated family structures that result from poverty.
"Many believe that this structure exists because of the morals of the people involved," the text says. "Our review of the research leads us to believe that generational poverty and an overload of one crisis after another produces this pattern."
Regardless of the moral perspectives faced by the poor, there is little dispute over the financial perils.
Much of Getting Ahead's mission is dealing with the cultural impediments that keep people down, including financial habits.
For example, the companion text for social-work professionals says people in poverty think of money as something "to be used, spent." The middle class looks at cash as a resource to be managed and the wealthy look at it as something to be conserved or invested.
Victor Russell, regional operations manager for Consumer Credit Counseling, said his organization isn't directly involved with Getting Ahead but is there to help anyone. His group more often hears from middle-class workers who have fallen into poverty after lost jobs or health-care costs than from the generationally poor.
He said the emotional effects are powerful for everyone, no matter how they fell into trouble.
"I think the biggest part is getting off that initial shock and start setting that path on where you go from here," he said. "The disbelief turns into depression because they thought that this would be the only place that they were going to work."
The key is to find help quickly and cut costs, he said.
He asks, is the cable TV really necessary? Are you eating out too often? No expense should be beyond scrutiny.
"It's those little things that will help mentally pick yourself up, because you are addressing it," he said. "The second thing is that those individuals will get real about their situations and about their expenses."
While the Bridges Out of Poverty program bases its assistance largely on education, H.M. Life Opportunity Services offers help with some strings attached.
Only homeless single parents with children are admitted to the program that offers individual families one of 34 apartments in Summit County. Education, with an emphasis on financial literacy, also plays a part, but random drug tests are administered, alcohol is banned from the apartments and overnight adult visitors such as boyfriends are not allowed.
Program director Melissa Massey-Flinn claims "86 percent of families that come into our program leave our program into permanent housing and maintain it for at least six months."
Participants are required to work or go to school at least 20 hours a week.
"What our program does is to help people become self-sufficient more than actually getting out of poverty and that is a very long road, and our program is only two years long," Massey-Flinn said.
The program also uses a Mobile Moms program to provide safe, used cars to its more responsible participants (some are men), but Massey-Flinn believes providing housing is the key.
"Once someone gets housing, we believe everything falls into place," she said. "We believe housing is the foundation for everything else, for working, for advancing your education, for family, for all of that. We believe it's No. 1."
Cathie Finn, coordinator of Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority's Community CARES Program, acknowledges it's easier to find people who are fighting to get out of poverty than someone who has actually risen to the middle class.
"Someone can be as motivated, as bright, as hard-working, as well planned, as supported as we could dream of and in the situation we have going on right now, have a tremendous struggle to get out of poverty," she said. "So one of the things I think that AMHA, for better or worse, has to offer is that we get to know people over the long term, sometimes multi-generationally. We are their landlords, they might come in in a crisis because they're homeless and think they are going to leave in two years, but it might be 15 years before they leave."
She has estimated that a full-time worker with a family of four needs to earn $14.75 an hour with benefits to be completely out of poverty, so many people succeed in shedding some forms of assistance, but not all.
She said it takes more than an individual effort.
"Getting out of poverty is a long process and there's only so much an individual can do, and we really think that the community has to get behind this whole thing [by] realizing what the community has to do to get people out of poverty," she said.
And while she remains hopeful for some individuals beating poverty, Finn has doubts about the chances of overall success.
"All of society has to decide they want to beat it," she said. "I'm not sure they do. Poor people serve a function in this society cheap labor being a primary one. And the you-don't-want-to-grow-up-like-those-folks example If we were dedicated to getting out of poverty our minimum wage wouldn't be where it is. Whether or not there is a public will to eliminate poverty - there are a lot of nice people who want to help - but broad generalized public policy to eliminate poverty, I'm not so sure. Poor people serve a function, we can blame them as an example of what not to be."