In Vermont the population is about 626,000. One in every ten Vermonters, or 70,000, are classified by the U.S. Census Bureau as living in poverty.
BFP: Could you identify some of the causes of poverty?
Jan Demers: Unemployment, underemployment, lack of education or skill, disability, sudden or chronic health or mental health issues affecting self or family, high medical bills, loss of transportation, loss of federal dollars which undergird section 8 vouchers and stabilized housing.
BFP: What populations are chiefly affected?
JD: That is an interesting question. We, as a society, don’t talk about poverty in a personal sense. Mark Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washington University, says that his research shows that nearly 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will experience at least one year below the federal poverty level in their lives and 54 percent will spend a year in poverty or near poverty. If you add in welfare use and unemployment, four out of five Americans will experience poverty in their lives. That seems like an absurd figure, but then, think about your own life and the lives of those you know.
I can relate to having spent more than a year and a half below the federal poverty level. I would say taking that into consideration that the vast majority of households and individuals in our communities know what it feels like to live in poverty. All of our populations are affected.
Some statistics for those people we serve:
• The largest group we serve are employed, but under employed.
• Most of the people are single but the next largest group are female single parents with one child.
• They rent, own their home or are homeless.
• The largest group is at 50 percent of the federal poverty level and has a high school degree. Eleven
percent of those we serve have had some post secondary education.
• The largest group we serve has Medicaid for health insurance but 17 percent have no insurance at all. That will change with VT Health Connect.
•Half of the households we serve have a car and most of the people we serve are white. We also serve New Americans, refugees and immigrants, veterans and those who have disabilities.
BFP: How does poverty take root?
JD: Poverty can happen in an instant with the loss of a job, or loss of health insurance, the onset of a chronic disease or the death of a family member. For someone whose life hovers on the edge of poverty, a major car repair can tip the balance causing potential job loss and housing instability. Poverty is a definite and delicate domino process. It takes an inordinate amount of effort and resources to re-establish stability.
There is an interesting new book out entitled “Scarcity” by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. Their premise is based on scarcity, which can be related to several life experiences: lack of time, lack of health, lack of resources just to name a few. One of the symptoms of scarcity is the person’s view is limited and focused on the area of pain. When someone is hungry in Vermont they will be successful finding food but it may take an entire day focused on the scarcity and not on the change needed to prevent another day of hunger. We know that because of the state’s policy of addressing homelessness in Vermont. In the winter families may find a roof over their heads at night. However, it generally takes all day to get that bed, and there is very little time left to address the larger problem. Breaking the downward trajectory takes intervention.