Pickup day at a food pantry
By J.D. Prose
Beaver County Times
Sept 28, 2014 – Pastor Avril Vreen doesn’t need newly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau to tell her that poverty is a problem in Beaver County.
All she had to do was watch two young brothers split a free lunch at her Holy Spirit Fellowship Church in New Brighton this past summer. One of the boys agonized over precisely dividing a slice of bread, “which suggested to me that this child has done it before,” she said.
“Right there, I said, ‘This is more necessary than we thought,’” Vreen said of her church’s summer lunch program that served about 2,500 meals to children this year.
According to data recently released by the Census’ American Community Survey, nearly 20,700 Beaver County residents, or 12.4 percent, live below the poverty line, including 6,700 children. That total number represents about a 33 percent increase from 2007, when the county’s poverty rate was 9.1 percent.
In Allegheny County, nearly 13 percent of its 1.19 million residents, or more than 151,000 people, live below the poverty line while almost 14 percent of Lawrence County residents, about 12,200 people, do.
RELATED: How is the poverty level in Beaver County different from the state average? (Info graphic)
The national poverty rate is 14.5 percent, representing about 45 million Americans, according to TalkPoverty.org.
The government’s poverty line is based on annual income. For 2012, the poverty line for a family of four was $23,050 regardless of where the family lives in the United States.
Maj. Richard Lyle, the commander of the Salvation Army in Beaver Falls, said he’s seen the effects of poverty firsthand in the Army’s food pantries and soup kitchens. Five years ago in Beaver Falls the Salvation Army was servicing about 2,000 families a month, but that crept up before making “a significant jump” to about 2,600 18 months ago.
Just within the last six months, though, Lyle said the number of families has surpassed 3,000. That, he said, is mainly the result of government cuts in programs and services for those struggling on the fringes.
But Lyle said the Affordable Care Act has had an unintended consequence, too. He said the law has swayed some employers to cut part-time workers’ hours to keep from having to provide healthcare coverage, which forces families to make do with less.
“A good number of families are caught up in that process,” Lyle said.
The Rev. Bernard Wallace of the Church in the Round in Aliquippa said they provide hot lunches three days a week and distribute bread, pastries and meats every third Friday. He estimated that between 400 and 500 families seek food from the program.
“People come from everywhere for that,” said Wallace, who echoed others that the problem is worsening as people struggle in low-wage jobs or try to find employment.
Following historical national trends, children, women and blacks have higher rates of poverty than the county.
RELATED: Poverty by the numbers in Western PA: a look at race, age, location, education and gender. (Info graphic)
Besides those county residents under 18 living in poverty, Census data says that about 14 percent are women and 30 percent are black compared to 10.6 percent of whites. According to 2013 estimates, women make up about 51 percent of the county’s population while blacks account for just 6 percent.
TalkPoverty.org broke down the numbers and determined that blacks in Pennsylvania have a 28 percent poverty rate, slightly worse than the national average.
However, in the 12th Congressional District — which includes Beaver County, southern Lawrence County, the North Hills, and parts of Westmoreland, Cambria and Somerset counties — the poverty rate for blacks is more than 31 percent, almost 4 percent worse the national average.
The overall poverty rate in the 12th Congressional District, represented by Republican U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus of Sewickley, is 9.6 percent, more than 6 percentage points better than the national average. Women (10.7 percent) and children (11.8 percent) also fared better in the district when compared to national figures.
In the 18th Congressional District, which includes Moon Township and is represented by Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair Township, the poverty rate for blacks is almost 22 percent, 6 percent better than the national average. Women (9.8 percent) and children (12.5 percent) in the district also fare better than the national average.
Morton Coleman, the director emeritus of the Institute of Politics of the University of Pittsburgh and a professor emeritus at Pitt’s School of Social Work, said Beaver County communities, many of which are struggling economically, are hampered when it comes to addressing poverty issues because they simply lack the resources.
RELATED: Poverty in Pennsylvania: an interactive map
“The ability for people to come back (financially) is difficult and the resources are not, in smaller communities, really powerful and that’s a problem," he said.
Coleman said expanding job training at community colleges so people have skills for a changing workforce is important, as is raising the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour that pushes some workers to rely on public assistance.
“The working poor can’t make it without public subsidies and we should do something about that,” Coleman said.
Within those minimum wage ranks, however, there are now adult workers seeking jobs that were traditionally held by teens and young adults just entering the workforce, which adds even more stress to the system, Coleman said.
Lyle said the working poor face rising costs such as utilities like the rest of us, but they face tough decisions when it comes to spending their dollars. “Sometimes, it’s the food budget that takes the biggest hit,” he said.
Unfortunately, some companies that have provided assistance in the past are cutting those programs when the need is greater than ever, Lyle said. Those cutbacks put more pressure on groups such as the Salvation Army.
“Our system right now is working at a capacity that it wasn’t designed for,” Lyle said. “It’s just an uncertain time. There are no increases that come along these days.”
Vreen said her church is trying to organize a weekly dinner for families after watching adults accompany children to the summer lunches and sit staring as the little ones ate.
Those images, as well as that of a child ripping open a mustard packet and gulping it down, stick with her.
Vreen said society tends to ignore issues if they are not readily visible, but poverty can be hiding in plain sight. “If you’ve got your head in the sand,” she said, “you really won’t recognize it.”
Times’ database/enterprise reporter Daveen Rae Kurutz contributed to this article.