Getting help in our community
More than 75 years ago, in the midst of the Great Depression, Sophie Tucker is quoted as saying, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor; believe me, rich is better.” While that line might have humorous then, the truth today is not funny; we can’t afford to be poor. The cost of poverty to the families, organizations and government programs that deal with it is expensive. When I speak to clients at the Urban League or other agencies, this particular topic tends to hit home with everyone as we look at specific situations in getting help in our community.
“How much is a loaf of bread in Pine Valley?” I ask the group. Some folks might recognize that area as one of the most affluent in the Fort Wayne, but they don’t shop there. They chuckle when they hear that bread is offered daily for 99 cents, but when asked how much they pay for it on Pontiac Street, they become a bit annoyed because they can’t think of a nearby place to buy bread. Our urban area has very few grocery stores or supermarkets so it is hard to find basics like bread, milk, eggs or fresh vegetables at any price in our neighborhoods. Our clients rely on “convenience” stores and gas stations or rides to suburban markets for their grocery needs. This means that they are paying more for groceries than higher income folks do when you consider the inflated retail prices and their time and gas to purchase them.
This phenomenon has been documented from coast to coast in many urban communities. From the Washington Post to The Huffington Post online, journalists and researchers have studied the issue, but when you live it daily it hurts. People don’t choose to be poor, but lack of opportunities to make better choices often keeps them poor. It is obvious to see this challenge in buying food, but it affects other purchases as well. If you don’t have access to a vehicle, it can be difficult to find and keep employment. Up until recently, our largest employer, Parkview Health Systems, was outside of the area that Citilink could service with public transportation. A dynamic public-private partnership with Parkview, IPFW, Ivy Tech and Citilink has made limited access to college campuses available, but it doesn’t directly connect to riders in the urban center of our city. If you are lucky enough to have a car, you have probably noticed the differences in gas prices from one part of town to another. And if you happen to drive a car that uses flex fuel/e-85 gas (which is typically priced much lower than regular gas) you will find that it is offered at only four locations in Fort Wayne, none of which are in the urban or south side of town. Just to get around town will cost you more, especially if you get hooked into a “buy here-pay here” car lot. At $59 a week, buying a car sounds tempting, but quickly you realize that in less than one month you have spent more than $200 (which could have been financed at a reasonable rate at a local bank or credit union) and if you miss a payment, you lose the car immediately.
The inequities continue. Since there are limited choices in the urban community for safe, affordable and decent housing, other related items such as insurance, furniture and home repairs cost proportionally more for lower income families than higher income households. According to federal standards from HUD, no more than 30 percent of a family’s monthly income should be allocated to housing, yet it is typical to see poor families spending 50 to 70 percent or more in housing, which keeps them constantly looking for some type of assistance.
Let’s look at it this way: the average cost of a two bedroom apartment is $674 in Fort Wayne. The median household annual income in Allen County for a family of four in 2012 was $52,000. This means that family would be spending about 15 percent of their income on such housing, leaving 85 percent for other items such as quality childcare, higher education, transportation and so on. But if a lower income family has an annual income of $12,000, that same $674 apartment is more than 65 percent of their monthly income, which leaves them scrambling to make ends meet for everything else on less $350 a month for utilities, food and other basics. It just doesn’t work.
This is why some assistance programs are so addictive and counterproductive. Until you earn a livable wage, many families can’t wean themselves from needing assistance. As a society we want to help, but rarely do we address the steps needed to get beyond the assistance program. If a person does not have access to 99¢ bread, he has no choice but the $1.75 loaf which is all that is available in his neighborhood. But as a community, we are all at risk if we don’t address the underlying issues that make this economic divide continue to grow. Our churches that have vans that sit idle throughout the week can use them to transport residents to shopping areas. Our merchants can take note of the buying power that is still in the center of our city and invest in locations in our neighborhoods. Employers need to make an effort to hire and train urban workers so that they can earn a livable wage that can support their family without assistance. And for those of us that have become dependant on assistance programs, we should be grateful for that temporary help, but vow to develop the habits and skills necessary to become self sufficient.
The good news is that there is help for this, too. The Urban League, Fort Wayne Housing Authority and several local nonprofit organizations and faith-based groups have programs and mentors that can guide families through the steps to self reliance. Think of it more like a hand up instead of a hand out. “Empowering Communities… Changing Lives” is more than a slogan. It is a goal that will help us all and will be the greatest legacy that we can give the next generation to achieve the American Dream.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9 print edition.