December 22, 2014

Elyria
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Region’s working poor struggle to break cycle of poverty

Very few people likely aspire to live a life of poverty whether they live in Wilkes Villa, Eastern Heights or in any other part of Elyria or Lorain County.

However, once stuck in the cycle, people learn through trial and error it takes more money than originally thought to move from poverty to something better, especially in an economy that is unforgiving to the poor.

“Minimum wage, or anything close to it, is not enough to get by on,” said Fight for a Fair Economy Ohio director Nick Gurich, who works with an offshoot of the SEIU District 1199. “Some people want to paint these people as being unemployed or lazy, but generally that’s not the case. They are working — sometimes harder than the rest of us. They are just underemployed.”

According to the Economic Policy Institute, what is needed to run a household is much more than not only what the poor are bringing home but also more than the median household income for Lorain County — $48,280 at last count according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In a recently released report, the EPI calculated the annual basic budget for a two-parent, two-child family in the Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor metropolitan statistical area is an estimated $62,050. That is the bar to reach for a full-time, full-year minimum-wage worker earning only $16,328 a year — a whopping 70 percent less than what is required for a modest living standard.

Closing that gap is the struggle the poor face every day. Often, that means turning to so-called entitlement programs to help with food, money, medical care and child care.

“They don’t solve all of the problems, but they provide a safety net for kids across the state and very low-income parents,” said Ben Johnson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. “There are a lot of misconceptions about who receives such help, but four out of 10 people who receive food assistance are children, seven out of 10 people who receive cash assistance are children, and all of the people who receive child care assistance are children.”

There are about 1.8 million Ohioans receiving food assistance, and none makes more than 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline, which is $23,550 for a family of four. It is one of few entitlement programs available to able-bodied persons with children, but assistance is limited to roughly $130 on average per person per month.

Many people have likely heard of politicians going on a weeklong food stamp challenge and attempting to eat on less than $35 a week. The point of the challenge is to raise awareness of the difficulty in living —and living well — within the SNAP allowance.

There are even fewer people receiving cash assistance. And, those all have to be adults with dependent children making no more than 50 percent of the federal poverty guideline.

“The number is much smaller in Ohio than people realize. In May 2012, there were just 133,000 individuals enrolled in the program, and 70 percent were children,” Johnson said. “The income guidelines are much more stringent, so these are families that essentially have no income and the numbers are not as high because it’s time-limited.”

Families can only receive cash assistance, also known as welfare, for three years. Hardship cases can get an extension to extend the time to five years, but very few qualify and the time limit is a lifetime limit, with no exceptions.

Beyond time limits, welfare also requires work. Every adult in the program must perform 30 hours of some kind of work — volunteer or otherwise — a week. Those who don’t are suspended from the program.

Welfare recipients receive on average $400 a month per household.

“That’s why SNAP, Medicaid and child care assistance are important companion programs,” Johnson said. “The cash assistance available to families is very limited. It goes back to Welfare to Work reform that started in the 1990s.”
Putting more money into the hands of some of the hardest-working Americans will not be an easy task. But some politicians are intent on doing just that despite the groundswell against them.

“On June 25, 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law a minimum wage standard that would help build America’s middle class. Seventy-five years later, Ohioans who work hard should be able to take care of their families by earning a living wage,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, in a statement released on the 75th anniversary of minimum wage. “But too many Ohioans are working harder than ever — and barely getting by.”

Brown would like to see the federal minimum wage increased to $10.10 an hour from its current $7.25 in three increments of 95 cents, then provide for an automatic annual increases linked to changes in the cost of living.

A bill, which Brown has cosponsored, would also gradually raise the minimum wage for tipped workers — currently $2.13 an hour — for the first time in more than 20 years to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage.

“Ensuring a fair wage is good for middle-class families and good for our economy,” he said.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.