By Gina Marinelli
Three-year-old Chris cries into the grey sleeve of his mother’s sweatshirt. Sheila comforts her son, the younger of her two children, before he jumps off her lap to play with some building blocks.
Dressed in a colorful blouse and slacks, Schara Williams sits on the couch across from Sheila and flips through the classified section of a newspaper.She reads aloud, “There’s a one bedroom for 695 a month, which is over the limit but maybe we can negotiate.”
She is searching for an apartment that Sheila will be able to afford once her 90-day limited stay at the domestic violence shelter is up.“As far as I know, eventually I would have to stay in a motel,” Sheila says about her rapidly approaching future outside the comforts of the house in Kingston where she and her children live, separate from her abusive husband.
Sheila, 40, says that the government doesn’t see her as a single mother who constantly worries about how she will support her family, but rather as a number on paper.She is part of a staggering statistic— one of the 37 million Americans living in poverty and a mere fraction of the 27 percent who are single mothers.
But, oddly, despite the number of Americans living in dire need, poverty was hardly a heavily debated issue in the recent Presidential election. Only Democratic candidate John
Edwards made the issue the centerpiece of his campaign for the nomination.Edwards planned to tackle poverty by raising the minimum wage, providing affordable housing, creating more access to bank accounts and improving education, according to his campaign Web site. Edwards stepped down from his run for candidacy shortly after the scandal surrounding his extramarital affair was made public.Between front runners John McCain and Barack Obama, the election focused more on the middle class and the rich, especially addressing efforts to improve the economic downturn.
While the mortgage crisis and big business bankruptcies have affected even the most affluent Americans, people like Sheila know, all too well, how it feels to constantly worry about money.
Williams is Sheila’s caseworker though an Ulster County Social Services program called Family Educators.She sounds optimistic as she sits in front of her client, but outside the walls of the shelter, her tone changes.She says that she fears for Sheila’s situation because the current welfare system is not set up for creating financial independence.
Each month Sheila receives $642 through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a form of government welfare.Currently, the majority of this money is paying for her stay at the shelter where Sheila must still attend to chores and obey a nine p.m. curfew in which she must be in her room with her children.Four days a week Sheila must attend work through a work placement program.She places stickers on cellophane packages, a far cry from her dream job as a nurse.
Williams says that Sheila is not being paid for her work because her small salary must be used to pay back Social Services.These obligations have prevented Sheila from attending physical therapy to correct a knee problem caused by her obesity.Each month she is left with little over a hundred dollars and the literal inability to truly stand on her own two feet.
According to Poor America: A comparative historical study of poverty in the United States and Western Europe by Samuel J. Eldersveld, in 1996, under the administration of President Bill Clinton, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was passed with the intention to get Americans off welfare, into the work force and ideally and no longer within the thresholds of poverty.TANF was a component of this legislation.
“Average wages increased and poverty rates fell in the late 90s,” according to Frank Stricker’s Why America lost the war on poverty—and how to win it.“However, although welfare rolls declined sharply, most people who left welfare stayed poor,” the book explained.
“There were two major shifts,” said Anne Roschelle, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “One was in ideology and one was in actual policy.”Roschelle has extensively researched homeless women in San Francisco who are also victims of domestic violence and effected by the policies of PRWORA.
“[It] was the most profound piece of welfare legislation since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal,” Roschelle states in her article, “Welfare Indignities: Homeless Women, Domestic Violence, and Welfare Reform in San Francisco.”Under PRWORA, the federal government provides a block grant to each state to be distributed to welfare recipients.Another change enacted was a five year tap placed on welfare eligibility.
“One of the myths of welfare is that women go on welfare and they just stay on it because they’re lazy,” said Roschelle.“But most women who receive welfare go on and off intermittently over the course of their lives.”
Before the welfare reform a person could be on welfare for 30 or 40 years, says Roschelle, but now if a person were in need of welfare assistance and their five-year maximum is exceeded, “they’re screwed.”
In Mark Robert Rank’s One Nation, Underprivileged, Rank highlights what he sees as another flaw in the system.“Perhaps what is most troubling about this issue,” he says, “is precisely the contrast between our considerable wealth as a nation and the impoverishment of a significant percentage of our people.”
In New Paltz, Mayor Terry Dungan says he is confident in the future of the country with Obama as leader, even in dealing with the issue of poverty.He says that “theoretically there is enough assistance out there, but the problem traditionally has been that it’s so difficult to get it.”
Like Dungan, Gianna Baldacinni, a student at SUNY New Paltz, is unsure of what the new president will do to tackle the problem of poverty in America.“[Poverty] hasn’t been an
important issue,” said the 20-year-old, as she prepared to walk into the voting booth on Election Day.“Nobody cares about poor people, because they don’t have any money,” she said frankly.
SUNY New Paltz professor, Mette Christiansen, is originally from Denmark and views poverty in America with an international perspective.“People don’t know that you could actually have a western society with very little poverty,” she says.She suggests that, like other Western European countries, America should provide their people with a healthy prenatal start, a birth without worrying about whom is going to pay for it, subsidized daycare and a good education.“You’re going to prosper,” Christiansen says, “so I don’t have to look at you when you are 25 and want my taxes for your welfare.”
Christiansen, who believes that Obama may not be radical enough to address the problems of poverty in America, also says that Americans have “a deep rooted belief in pulling yourself up” by your bootstraps.
“What if you don’t have boots?” asked Amy Cole, the Director of Family Educators.As Sheila is only limited to receive TANF for five years, she is also limited in the amount of counseling she can receive from Family Educators.For six months, Family Educators will help Sheila meet her basic needs and work with her and her family to build a strong family relationship.Cole says that another go
al of the program is to help prevent “generational poverty” by connecting families with resources and support networks to help pull them out of poverty and be prepared for life without any welfare assistance.
Cole says that six months is not enough time to achieve these goals.“What we try to do is give the families a toolbox,’ she says.“The last few months of our intervention is rea
lly focused on how will you get your needs met when this program is no longer here.”
Cole says that many families who live in poverty in America
also struggle with other issues such as abuse or a traumatic life experience.This may prevent them from working without the mental health support that they need.“They tend to get lost in the system,” says Cole.“And they fall through the cracks.”
Poverty in America was not a predominant issue address in the presidential election last year but according Obama’s campaign Web site, he promises to invest $1 billion over five years to help low income Americans thrive in the workforce and eventually reduce dependency on welfare and food stamps.However, it is unclear what this will mean from families currently on welfare, and possibly at the end of their five year limit.
Any help that Sheila receives is temporary.She is expected to look for a job, find an apartment to live in, schedule doctors’ and therapists’ appointments and most importantly, take care of her two young children.“I just want people to realize that not all people on social services are lazy,” she says, adding that she is essentially on her own.Sheila says that even the politicians who are supposed to help people like her, have no idea what their struggle is actually like.“It’s like you don’t even exist,” she says.