This community and surrounding counties are full of thoughtful, hardworking, generous and kind people. We have been dealt a difficult economic hand in this region, but our compassion for each other perseveres. There is no better example of that than the ever expanding number of local citizens and groups who are stepping up to help our neighbors with support for food and shelter. It seems as though every month or so a new volunteer program is started to collect food or household goods for those less fortunate. As someone who has spent his whole life trying to help poor families, I can assure you that these efforts have become essential to their survival.
In fact, after more than 40 years working in this field I can say that right now is the worst I have ever seen the plight of poor people in this county and in our community. They are more likely to be hungry or homeless, more likely to live in deep poverty, more likely to live in a household with zero cash income, more likely to have children who are suffering the health, mental health and educational problems associated with poverty. As always poverty is still very much hidden from the lives most of us live. It still carries a terrible but undeserved stigma of personal failure. If it were true that character flaws cause poverty and you believed what the Republican presidential candidates say about each other, it is surprising any of them have a penny to their names.
The people who work with these low income families and their children know what is really happening. Social workers, counselors, caseworkers and especially teachers see the families doubled and tripled up in housing. The children coming to school hungry and exhausted from living in overcrowded traumatic households where every day is about survival. It is not always easy to get in the door of these homes. Not just because they are so cramped, but because they are often very fearful of outsiders passing judgment on them. They did not choose this lifestyle.
So I could never express enough gratitude for the local citizens who have stepped up to help. It was particularly telling that the issue was so obvious to teachers that a local district started a food pantry within the school system. Students have been bringing in food and supplies for the hungry and homeless.
It is a great lesson in the value of compassion and community support. It is also asking our children to feed and house each other. Over half of all children in Athens and surrounding counties are eligible for free school lunch. That means they are coming from poor families. Whatever happened to the idea of government having a responsibility to assure that basic human needs are met for all people? This principle has been slowly dissolving for the past 30 years. It has been under most direct assault in the past five years.
Cuts in cash assistance and Food Stamps since January of 2011 have reduced annual benefits by over $700 million. That is money that is coming out of the poorest families in the poorest communities in the state. What about the annual loss locally? Athens County loses $4.6 million, Jackson County $3 million, Meigs County, $1.2 million, Morgan County $1.1 million, Washington County $2.4 million and the Hocking, Vinton, Ross County region $8 million. Keep in mind that welfare benefits were only providing an income that was half the Federal Poverty Level even before these cuts. But this is also money lost to our already bad economy.
These cuts come from both political parties and from all levels of government. Most families in our community are struggling. Many have someone who is having health or mental health issues. Many have someone with substance abuse problems or perhaps even criminal records. Many work two or more jobs to survive. Over the past 30 years elected officials have adopted the policies that have made the rich much richer and everyone else poorer.
In addition to bringing a can of food to the local pantry, contact your elected officials and let them know that we don’t want our kids to have to feed each other. The lesson about compassion needs to get to those adults who have allowed our society to become one of the most economically unfair among the industrialized nations. This election, lets insist that the problem of hungry and homeless people not be put on a back burner again. Demand that the basic human needs of our neighbors and our children take priority over tax cuts for the rich. We are all in this together.
Contact the president, the governor, U.S. senators and congressmen, state representatives and senators, and local county commissioners. They have all got a piece of the responsibility for the current state of affairs and the ability to fix it.
Thanks to all of you very kind and thoughtful people who have taken action to help your neighbors.
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Jack Frech is a retired director of Athens County Department of Job and Family Services and a member of The Messenger’s Board of Contributors.