Senator hears from people who want to get out of poverty
By KATHRYN KLINE
LOCK HAVEN — Two state senators visited the city recently to “hear from people who are in poverty and want out.”
State Sens. Art Haywood and Vincent Hughes, both Democrats from the Philadelphia area, made a stop in Lock Haven last Thursday part of a five-stop poverty listening tour across the state.
Some 30 people and seven panelists from Central Pennsylvania attended the event at STEP Inc.’s Clinton County Community Center. Panelists came from across this region, including Williamsport, Lock Haven and Tioga County.
It was evident that at least part of the reason the tour stopped in Lock Haven is due to this area’s relatively high poverty rates.
According to county health rankings via a noted Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded study, 20 percent of people 18 and under who live in Clinton County live in poverty.
Up-to-date statistics can be found in the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey Five-Year Estimates.
Lock Haven’s population is 9,724, according to these estimates.
When figuring the number of city residents living in poverty, the Census Bureau did not use people who live in institutions, like Susque-View. Once they are removed, the estimates show 3,310 city residents live in poverty.
That is a total of 42 percent of the population counted for these particular estimates.
Those attending Thursday had compelling stories to tell, but Haywood cautioned that “it’s a mistake to just use our own idea of how we grew up and make decisions based on that, thinking it’s going to affect everyone else. There’s a lot of different experiences that we need to take into account.”
Topics of discussion varied throughout the three-hour session, including government assistance programs, childcare, the opioid crisis, transportation in rural communities, and other obstacles those in poverty face on an everyday basis.
Each panelist told an abbreviated version of their story and the struggles they have faced in life, followed by questions from Sens. Haywood and Hughes.
Sen. Haywood, who has advocated for an increase in the state’s minimum wage, asked panelists what their wages were and what a typical “well-paying” job would pay in each of the areas they live in. He also looked for insight from panelists on what the job outlook is like for those in the area with a criminal record.
“We need more opportunities to advance in education and work experience. I know that right out of high school, some jobs want a high school diploma and if you have a GED you get disqualified immediately,” said panelist Leesa Gallagher. “We need more jobs that benefit all of us, not just certain people.”
The session also focused on the benefits of programs that help those at a disadvantage, such as STEP’s Youth Enrichment for Success (YES) program, which is aimed at helping at-risk youth through one-on-one mentoring.
“Some of the goals I completed while enrolled in the YES program: I obtained my GED, I obtained full-time employment with Aramark, I opened a checking account and worked on my budgeting skills, I job shadowed with the IT department at STEP, I got my photo ID, driver’s license, resume,” said Kenar Swanston, a 19-year-old Williamsport resident. “The YES program essentially helps you get yourself out.”
Another program that many of the panelists credited for their success and advancement is the Employment, Advancement, and Retention Network (EARN), which is funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.
“I was essentially homeless, unemployed, with two children and didn’t know how I was going to feed my family. They helped me find the confidence I needed in overcoming the major barriers,” said Janice Gartland, a panelist who now is employed by the Earn program. “I know I wouldn’t have ended up where I am today if I didn’t have the support and opportunities afforded to me by the many programs that have helped me on my path to success.”
Though these programs aid those in poverty, there is still an issue of transportation to even get to the programs, especially for those living in rural communities, which was addressed by Haywood and some of the panelists.
“People wonder why they’re wasting their time because they come here and they’ve already faced 20 obstacles in their day. They come there already defeated. You feel like so many things are stacked against you, especially when the day to day struggle is just getting somewhere,” said Gartland.
In terms of improvement for government programs intended to help those in poverty and on welfare, Gartland and another panelist, Brittany Nunemaker, offered a few key suggestions.
Nunemaker suggested that those receiving food stamps or other assistance and who are not working should be required to do some sort of community service.
Another suggestion had to do with possible ways to help those in assistance learn about what jobs they might excel at in the future.
“I think job shadowing would help – getting them out into these jobs that they hear about but they’re afraid to interview for or afraid they can’t do it. That would give them the opportunity to see this is a position they could have and this is something they could do,” said Gartland.
Nunemaker said, “Many people grow up in homes that didn’t have support or were never told ‘you can do that, why don’t you try it?’. That’s how I was. I think taking them out and letting them see what they like would be motivational. It’s better than just sitting there at a computer screen.”
Sen. Haywood agreed that job shadowing might be more helpful than simply reading about job opportunities.
“Seeing what’s possible is very different than reading what’s possible. I imagine that shadowing or some sort of observation opportunities would give people some hope,” said Haywood.
Despite the positives of assistance programs, Gartland wanted to make it clear that there are people who are on assistance that are still struggling, due to low wages and few job opportunities that offer room for growth or advancement.
“When you get to a point when you’re heading towards self-sufficiency, you’re still barely scraping by. You’re still at poverty level,” said Gartland. “You’re still not able to afford vacations. I still am saving six months in advance for Christmas and birthdays, just so my kids have something.”
The suggestions and comments offered by the panelists and others speaking out across the state will be compiled into a report that will be released by the senator’s office.
“I would like to thank everyone who spoke today for their courage to speak out. It makes a difference. I want you to know that without that courage, we decision makers are at a loss,” said Haywood, while concluding the session.
Sen. Hughes offered similar positive sentiments when addressing panelists before the end of the meeting.
“Your testimonies are tremendous examples of how with some support and some help, folks can begin to process and navigate their way through,” said Hughes. “Your stories are documented, they’re filmed, they’ll be shown. Part of this is to publicize it and let folks know what the real deal is. Our job is to be your voice.”
The other stops on Sen. Haywood’s tour include the Northwest Region today from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Urban Erie Community Development Corporation in Erie, and the Western Region on Thursday at the Penn State Greater Allegheny University in McKeesport, time to be announced.