According to Erlinda Gonzalez, director of the Archuleta County Department of Human Services (DHS), “One of the best indicators of how a place is doing economically is how many people are on government assistance, particularly food assistance.”
Gonzalez states that, in the last few years, the number of people on food assistance has increased, due in part to the economic downturn. But even the numbers demonstrated in the bi-monthly DHS reports are not necessarily an accurate picture of how many people are in need of assistance.
“There are those who have too much pride to ask for help, and also those who do not apply because they fear being turned down, or don’t think they would qualify in the first place,” said Gonzalez.
The 2010 Census Bureau report states that 8.5 percent of the population of Archuleta County, 1,032 people, are living in poverty. The Colorado Children’s Campaign presented via data.center.kidscount.org the statistic showing that 52 percent of Archuleta County’s children qualified for free or reduced priced lunches. In May of 2012, 527 households in the county accepted food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Each of these numbers is an indicator of how Pagosa Country is doing economically. They demonstrate how many people are in need.
Gonzalez believes, both based on these numbers and her experience as director of the DHS, that, “poverty has increased over the last few years.” She believes that, largely due to the economic downturn, more households are finding themselves in need of additional resources. Many have turned to government aid in the form of food assistance for short term support.
But, there is more than one type of poverty. There is the type that many formerly middle class or lower middle class Americans have begun to experience since the recession began in 2008. This type of poverty is often brought on by a failed business or layoff that leaves households with fewer wage earners, sending them into the impoverished category for what is usually, according to Gonzalez, a limited period that ends when employment is regained and finances are stabilized.
Another, less temporary, type of poverty, which has long plagued this country regardless of region, is the type that Gonzalez believes will keep her in a job.
“I have been the director since 1990. So, I’ve been here long enough to see the pattern. I’ve seen the parents and now I see the kids. I’d love to work myself out of a job. But, with the poverty cycle in place, I don’t think that will ever happen.”
Based on Gonzalez’s experience, if a person was on welfare as a child, that person is more likely to be on welfare as an adult. A person who has previously received government assistance is more likely to return to government assistance. This poverty cycle and the poverty thinking, which it facilitates, are the biggest obstacles for the DHS, said Gonzalez.
“Because of poverty thinking, you really have to continuously motivate people. If a person is qualifying for food assistance, subsidized housing, financial grants and medical care, he or she can get pretty comfortable.”
Gonzalez recalled seeing single moms get a minimum wage job and wind up thinking that they are being penalized for working because their assistance is reduced. Gonzalez said she believes, “What we need is for these moms to demonstrate to children that you can be self sufficient.”
Since the 1990s when Gonzalez began her tenure at the DHS as director, the department has done an increasingly better job providing people with the tools to get out of poverty and off government assistance. There are now a number of programs that help recipients of aid become employable and employed and attain their GEDs. There are also family advocates who help recipients with budgeting.
Gonzalez described one of the main goals of DHS as being able to help people live within their means.
But, Gonzalez said, “The issue with poverty thinking is that this is, in a lot of cases, how they were raised. This is what they know.”
Gonzalez explained by describing how often, if a person grows up eating dinner at the dinner table with the family, that person will carry on the practice when they have a family of their own; or, if a person grows up eating dinner alone while watching TV, they will carry on that practice. This is, in some ways, like the way the poverty cycle continues, according to Gonzalez.
John Vick, co-director of Pagosa Springs Nurturing Center, a local resource center that caters to the needs of low income residents, agreed that generational poverty makes the problem of poverty more complicated. Vick, co-director Liz Alley and Jenna Gregory, a volunteer, discussed what enables a lower middle class individual to push through tough times and why low and very low income individuals struggle more to emerge from poverty. They agreed that it was a question of resources, many of which are passed down from one generation to another.
Gregory described how, on a personal level, she and her husband, as part of a lower middle class household, had dealt with the effects of the economic downturn by budgeting their money more tightly than ever and taking on jobs they had never done before.
Vick responded saying, “That entrepreneurial, resourceful attitude is part of the lower middle class lifestyle. But that attitude is something which lower income people tend to lack.”
Vick went on to say, “If you don’t have resources like education, language, the ability to advocate for yourself, the ability to build door-opening relationships, your more likely to stay in poverty.”
Gregory elaborated, saying, “You have to spend money to make money. If you can’t keep gas in your car or minutes on your cell phone, it’s really hard to get a job. If a potential employer tries to call you and your phone has been turned off, they’ll just call the next person on the list. If you have an interview scheduled, but you’ve run out of gas and gas money, you can’t get that job.”
“Often, these low income people don’t know how to create a budget that allows them to eke by until opportunity strikes, at which time they have a reserve of financial resources to enable them to take advantage of that opportunity,” said Vick.
So how does one overcome generational poverty, poverty thinking and the inherent lack of resources?
“Relationships,” said Vick.
Gregory agreed, “I have heard countless stories, and there are studies that have shown that all it can take is one strong, supportive relationship to change a person’s life.”
“We need programs which provide the relationships which will help move people out of poverty to something more sustainable,” said Vick. “But, part of the problem is that the government isn’t really equipped to handle relationships and relationships are what pull a person out of poverty. The government, the DHS, is best equipped for management.”
Vick went on to say that he believes the solution to poverty, particularly here in Pagosa, lies in public/private partnerships.
Alley agreed saying, “There is a collaboration deficit. There is little solid collaboration between the different agencies and organizations. One of our goals here (at the Nurturing Center) is better collaboration because of this.”
Though there are a number of partnerships between public and private entities whereby the DHS contracts companies that specialize in such things as job training, Vick, Alley and Gregory agreed that collaboration needs to extend beyond that to include nonprofit community and faith based organizations.
Whatever the underlying causes of poverty in Archuleta County and Pagosa Springs, as Gonzalez pointed out, the issue is not going away.