But beneath the surface, it‘s not hard to find some very sad cases at agencies such as Father Fred‘s Foundation and the Community Health Center in Traverse City, or at the Manna Project in Petoskey.
Janet Day is one such woman, locked in a desperate struggle with bills and health problems on a limited income. Janet was one of the featured speakers via a video link at a recent Poverty in Our Midst summit meeting in Traverse City.
A 71-year-old grandmother, Janet is a Traverse City native and a veteran of the Korean War. She presently lives in a mobile home with five other people, including two elementary school-aged children whom she is raising. Janet is disabled, and her income totals just $1,095 per month, or a little more than $13,000 per year. Consider that the government‘s definition of poverty for a family of three comes to just $13,290 per year, and you can see that Janet is struggling below even that level.
Of the $1,095 she receives per month, each dollar must be carefully accounted for and worried over to meet the $1,042 she has in bills. “It‘s awfully hard because the bills keep going up, but my income doesn‘t,“ she said. “The kids say, ‘Why can‘t we go to a movie or the mall?‘ And I have to tell them, honey, I just don‘t have the money. It hurts, it really hurts. Since I can‘t work and I‘m disabled, the bills are paid and the lights are on, but I can‘t afford anything extra.“
What‘s missing from this story is the painful look on Janet‘s face and her voice quivering with emotion as she spelled out the calculus of what it means to be desperately poor in Northern Michigan.
And she is hardly alone, because as noted at the summit, single female heads of households are three times as likely to be living in poverty here, followed by men raising children.
There were plenty of statistics on poverty at the summit, which was attended by 250 representatives of help agencies from around the region. In a five-county area here, some 10,493 people were living at the poverty level as of the 2000 census -- close to 7% of Northern Michigan‘s population. That means living on an income of less than $17,029 for a family of four, or less than $8,501 for a single person.
Those problems are exacerbated as our country drifts deeper into the so-called jobless economic recovery.
Dr. Carl Benner, M.D., director of the Community Health Clinic, noted that there is now a three-week waiting list to get in the clinic for free or low-cost health care, and that many patients are being turned away from private medical practices in town because of their inability to pay. The health care crisis is especially grave in the lack of dental services for the poor, because although physicians have formed a Grand Traverse Regional Healthcare Coalition to try to fill the gap in medical care, there are no low-cost or free dental services available and Medicaid recently ditched its dental benefit. If you have an abscessed tooth and you‘re broke, your only recourse may be to take an emergency room antibiotic until you can raise the funds to get help.
“We‘re one of the richest countries in the world, but the only industrialized nation that does not guarantee health care for its citizens,“ Dr. Benner said, adding that the current level of 43.6 million Americans without health insurance is expected to rise to 60 million by 2010.
The summit brimmed with similar unhappy statistics on housing costs, homelessness, the loss of 1,000 manufacturing jobs in the region since 2000, and families of the working poor who‘ve had the rug pulled out from under them. On the bright side, Jim Wiesing of the Michigan State University Extension pointed out that poverty in America tends to be a fluid, transitional thing, influenced by temporary factors such as divorce, childrearing and unemployment.
Those who attended the summit were invited with the goal of reducing poverty in the region by 25% by 2010. At first that struck me as rather fanciful and utopian thinking. We don‘t live in a closed, static system like a fish tank, after all. There will always be factors such as more poor persons moving into the region and downturns in the national economy to waylay the best-laid plans. More likely, Traverse City and Petoskey will “solve“ poverty the same way Boulder, Colorado has with its urban growth boundaries -- property rates will rise so high that only the wealthy will be able to live here, with the poor stuck in trailer parks many miles out of town.
That‘s one scenario. On the other hand, it could well be that today‘s middle class will increasingly move in the direction of what‘s called the working poor -- a condition most Americans knew very well when our country launched the so-called War on Poverty in the 1960s. The War on Poverty has subsquently been pooh-poohed as a failure by the wealthy end of the political strata, even though its many initiatives such as Head Start, school lunch programs, HUD, student aid, affirmative action and the like lifted millions of Americans out of malnutrition and into college and their first homes.
Perhaps we‘ll all be poorer soon, renewing a more caring and thoughtful political philosphy in our country which will promote universal health care and higher education rather than the selfish “me first“ attitudes which have been so prevalent over the past 20 years. Misery loves company, after all. Perhaps the poverty summit in Traverse City is the renewal of that way of thinking, right here close to home.