The Star, Sunday, April 13, 2014
By Matt Getts
Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, it persists — and at high levels in northeastern Indiana where 13.6 percent of the population lives in poverty.
What causes poverty?
There is no single answer to that question. Local experts and U.S. Census data, however, point to a variety of contributing factors, including the economy in general; wages that aren’t keeping pace with inflation; a sudden financial crisis; lack of education; mental illness; criminal history and the effects of so-called generational poverty — poverty for at least two generations.
Poverty is either situational or generational, said the Rev. Dan Barker, who has worked with the poor for the better part of his life.
In situational poverty, a person’s downward spiral is set off by an incident or chain of events, such as a car breaking down resulting in a loss of a job. In that instance, a quick turnaround may be possible.
The car is repaired. A new job is obtained. Life returns to normal.
In situational poverty, people rely on old work habits to get back on their feet. But what if there are no such work habits to fall back on?
People raised in an impoverished home may perpetuate the cycle because that is what is familiar to them, experts say.
“Generational poverty is different than situational poverty,” said Angie Kidd, director of Common Grace, a Noble County philanthropic effort. “What they learn is how to work the system.”
Brother Bud Owen, pastor at the First Church of Christ in Garrett, said he estimates 85 percent of the people who seek his church’s assistance fall into the generational poverty category.
People in situational poverty come to him and often cry, show frustration and desperation.
“They’re embarrassed,” Owen said.
He gets a different reaction when someone who is in generational poverty comes to his office requesting aid.
“When it’s generational, they seem more laid back about the situation,” Owen said. “It’s what they’re accustomed to. People get used to asking.”
Without a role model to teach them a good work ethic, people in generational poverty often find themselves in subsidized housing with others in similar positions, said Kris DeLong, a social worker for East Noble School Corp. who spent years as a case manager for Child Protective Services, a state agency that responds to reports of child abuse or neglect.
Staying in that sort of lifestyle becomes a matter of peer pressure, she added. Trying to better themselves can lead to ridicule.
“I think a lot of them are afraid of trying,” DeLong said. “They are also in a group with the same mentality.”
“That’s your social network,” said Bambee Lehman, a counselor with the Northeastern Center, the regional comprehensive mental health center based in Kendallville. “They have no support whatsoever.”
“Being poor can mean feeling hopeless, especially if born into multi-generational poverty and/or surrounded by poverty,” said Sean Wagner, assistant professor of economics, geography and sociology at Trine University in Angola. “The future looks inevitably like the past, and ‘better’ is hard to envision. In these circumstances, gathering the strength, ambition and vision for social mobility can be very difficult. You may even find yourself a ‘deviant’ among your peers if attempting to do so.”
It may be difficult to claim a direct causal relationship, but a lack of education does correspond to the likelihood of someone living in poverty, Census data show.
The U.S. Census Bureau offers poverty-level data by four educational categories for those 25 and older: no high school education; a high school diploma or GED; some college and a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Among people 25 and older, the poverty rate for those without a high school diploma or equivalent is 18.5 percent in northeastern Indiana. For people with a high school diploma or equivalent it is 9.45 percent. For those with bachelor’s degree or higher, 3.53 percent.
Put in other terms, a person without a high school diploma or equivalent is twice as likely to live in poverty compared to someone with that level of education. A person with a high school diploma is nearly three times as likely to live in poverty as someone with a bachelor’s degree.
A relationship exists between wages and the poverty level in northeastern Indiana.
Since 1989, the U.S. Census Bureau reports a 109 percent increase in the number of people living in poverty in DeKalb, LaGrange, Noble and Steuben counties.
Since 1989, the median income in those four counties has risen 62.3 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates Program. During that same time period, inflation has risen by 85.2 percent, according to the Census Bureau.
Wages that don’t increase on pace with inflation lead to more people living in poverty.
LaGrange County saw its median income rise 75.9 percent from 1989-2012, and had the area’s lowest growth rate of people in poverty in that time period, from 3,332 to 4,809.
The number of DeKalb County people living in poverty has grown from 2,249 in 1989 to 5,350 in 2012, an increase of 138 percent. During that same time period, median household income has risen 59.8 percent.
In Noble County, the number of people living in poverty rose from 2,994 in 1989 to 6,547 in 2012, a jump of 119 percent. The median household income rose 52.7 percent in that time period.
Steuben County seemed to buck the trend, however. There were 1,495 of its residents living in poverty in 1989, and that number jumped to 4,328 in 2012, an increase of 189 percent. Steuben County’s median income rose slightly faster than DeKalb and Noble’s.
Employment in the manufacturing sector is a key statistic affecting poverty, particularly in northeastern Indiana, which relies heavily on manufacturing jobs.
In 1999, when the poverty rate in Indiana was below 9.5 percent, there were 633,639 manufacturing jobs in the state, according to STATS Indiana, a website run by the Indiana Business Research Center.
In 2011, Indiana had 428,843 manufacturing jobs and a poverty level of 15.6 percent.
The northeastern Indiana counties with the highest percentage of people living in poverty in 2012 — LaGrange and Noble — had the area’s highest concentration of jobs in the manufacturing sector.
Getting a better-paying job is one way out of poverty, but what if you can’t get a job at all?
Of the people who come to Common Grace of Noble County for assistance, director Angie Kidd said the ones who seem to have the longest odds are those whose employment prospects have been hindered by a criminal record.
“I think the ones that are struggling the hardest are those with felonies,” Kidd said.
She said people leave jail already facing fines or legal bills and other expenses that have backed up while they were incarcerated. These people then face rejection from prospective employers who won’t hire them because they have felonies on their records.
“What do you do?” Kidd asked.
Kidd said Common Grace is looking into avenues to help people with criminal records.
Mental illness is another factor that plays into poverty figures (see related story).
Northeastern Center officials estimate that most if not all people with serious mental illness are living in poverty.
A sudden health emergency is another way to find oneself in the kind of financial difficulties that lead to poverty. One way to stave off the financial burden is through health insurance.
From 2008-2012, the counties with the lowest percentage of uninsured residents — DeKalb and Steuben — had the lowest percentage of people living below the poverty line.
“A real national health care system … would go a long way toward relieving the strains of poverty,” said Wagner. “Color me skeptical the unnecessarily complex and expensive Affordable Care Act will ever accomplish anything near its stated goals.”