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What is it like to be poor in Pagosa Country?

“My question to you this morning is: What is your definition of poverty?”

Addressing the Pagosa Springs Town Council two weeks ago, United Methodist Church Pastor Don Ford challenged the board, not only to answer that question, but to find out what it means to live in poverty.

It is a timely subject to address, in light of recent reports and census data. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, not only has the number of Americans living in poverty significantly increased, that number had also increased for residents of Archuleta County.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 43.6 million (14.3 percent) Americans were living in absolute poverty in 2009, up from 39.8 million (13.2 percent) in 2008. The percentage of people in the county living below the poverty line jumped from 11.9 percent in 2000 to 12.9 in 2009 — a total 1,559 residents.

Hoping to shed light on the plight of the poor, Ford has organized a “Poverty Simulation” on the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 9, for local officials: county administrators and commissioners, sheriff’s office employees, members of town council, school board directors and, “People working in other agencies who deal with people having difficulty making ends meet,” Ford said.

Ford told council that the simulation was, “Designed to be very accurate,” and illustrated one scenario: a husband and wife with three children, the husband having run out of unemployment benefits (as a laid-off computer programmer), the wife making $9 an hour as a receptionist. The family has a mortgage, utilities, food costs and other expenses associated with supporting a family of five. In the scenario, the family has access to social assistance and other resources available in the county.

The simulation will be broken up into four, 15-minute blocks, each block representing a week in which participants need to figure out how they will pay bills, meet obligations and handle unforeseen expenses, such as needed car repairs, medical bills, etc.

In the scenario mentioned above, the family of five would be living on the wife’s annual income of $18,720 (before taxes — around $16,000 after deductions — and without any time off).

Average per capita income in Archuleta County was $22,208, about 25 percent lower than Colorado’s $29,679 figure and about 28 percent lower than the national average.

Median household income in Archuleta County was $46,013, about 17 percent lower than the state’s $55,735 figure and 15 percent lower than the $54,442 median household income in the U.S.

It is the previous scenario that leads Ford to say, “I try to stay away from the ‘poverty’ label, for obvious reasons. It’s a situation that could happen to almost any family.”

Indeed, situations like the one Ford uses in his simulation have increased dramatically in the past few years, both locally and across the nation.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the official federal poverty line in 2011 is an annual income of up to $22,350 for a family of four. That figure, developed over 50 years ago, is considered a “relative” measure of poverty — obviously, a family of four making $22,350 and living in an area with a high cost of living (i.e. California) would be worse off than if that family lived in an area with a relatively low cost of living (such as Pagosa Springs).

Recent critics, from the left and the right, have questioned how well the HHS figures actually measure poverty, as well as the validity of Census Bureau data.

In June, the conservative Heritage Foundation released a report stating that U.S. citizens determined to live below the poverty level have access to adequate food sources, medical care and shelter. Furthermore, the report stated that, based on the number of amenities found in the average household (i.e. refrigerators, televisions, cell phones, air conditioning, etc.) listed below the poverty line, the poor in the U.S. in 2010 have a much better lifestyle than the poor had 50 years ago, much less relative to the poor in other countries.

Conversely, the progressive Wider Opportunities for Women think tank released a study earlier this year that said the federal poverty level figure barely covered basic necessities (i.e. food, clothing, shelter, etc.), but did not allow individuals or families to save for emergencies, retirement, a down payment on a home or for a child’s college education. The report indicated that a family would need to make nearly three times the $22,350 figure to provide for those other expenses.

Further complicating the issue, the Annie E. Casey Foundation report released two weeks ago found that 20 percent of children in the U.S. live in poverty — 14.7 million children in families with income less than $21,756 a year — increasing in 38 states from 2000 to 2009 and up 18 percent nation wide.

Despite the various views regarding what poverty might be, Ford said he sees it as more than just a problem of finances.

“There’s much more to it than the economics,” the pastor said. “With the mental, physical and spiritual components to it, it’s more than just the money aspect.”

“With many families,” Ford added, “if they miss just one paycheck, then they’re really stuck.”

Ford said his years of study and instructing others on the issues of poverty have given him the knowledge to take the issue to local officials. And while having read such books as “The Working Poor: Invisible in America,” by David Shipler, and “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich, books that describe in detail the struggles of the working poor in America, Ford says that the book, “Breakfast at Sally’s,” by Richard LeMieux is a great description of what it’s like to fall into poverty.

“‘Sally’s’” is a term for the Salvation Army. It’s about a guy who went from having everything to losing it all. It’s entertaining and very instructive,” Ford said.

It’s a lesson that Ford hopes to pass on to local officials in Archuleta County — to view, through role-playing, what it is like to suddenly have to struggle with paying bills. When asked if he thinks he’ll have good attendance at his poverty simulation on Sept. 9, Ford replied, “I hope so.

“They need to know, because a lot of them are not satisfied that this is a problem in our area.”

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