Breaking The Iron Cage of Poverty

Photo: iStockphoto

Lake Cares event on May 19 features Dr. Donna Beegle on the problem of generational poverty

Alarmed at the growing trend of poverty in Lake County, Lake Cares Food Panty executive director Irene O’Malley recently took the issue to Mount Dora council.

“When there’s poverty in the community and it’s increasing, it affects the entire community,” she told them at their May 3 meeting. “It’s our responsibility to reduce it.”

To that end, Lake Cares is bringing Dr. Donna Beegle to town. On Thursday, May 19, Dr. Beegle will speak on “Breaking the Iron Cage of Poverty.” The dinner event starts at 5:30 p.m. at Lake Receptions and costs $30 a plate. (To purchase tickets to the event, contact Lake Cares at 352-383-0100 and ask for Kathleen, or follow directions for registering online at www.lakecares.org).

Council was urged to attend.

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Dr. Beegle

Dr. Beegle learned about poverty the hard way. She grew up in generational, migrant labor poverty.  She is the only member of her family who has not been incarcerated. She left school at 15 for marriage and began raising two children while continually fighting poverty. At 25, she was unmarried, had little education or job skills. It was from that nadir that she worked her way out, getting a GED, AA in Journalism, BA in Communications, a Master’s Degree in Communication and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership. For the past 25 years she has worked with educators, justice professionals, health care providers, social service agencies and other organizations seeking to make a difference for those living in poverty.

O’Malley emphasizes that this event is not a fundraiser. “Raising money is important,” she says, “but we need to raise awareness now even more. It has to start there. Once you walk away with a sense of what poverty is all about, you’re just not the same.”

The numbers are disturbing. In the past four years, the number of Lake County residents living in poverty has increased from 13 to 17 percent.  For single mothers the poverty rate is much higher, around 33 percent. And of the 25,000 people served by Lake Cares last year, 37 percent were residents of Mount Dora.

To understand why Lake County residents are getting poorer even as Mount Dora builds eastward in the promise of development requires a different language and perspective than what is used by the county’s more comfortable citizens, who view poverty through a middle-class lens.

“Awareness means you recognize that you’re not supposed to ask a child in poverty what they want to be when they grow up,” O’Malley says. “Because they’re going to say, ‘still alive.’ It means that when you see someone is dirty, you’d don’t assume they don’t know how to take care of themselves.”

Providing food may keep the poor from going hungry, but what keeps people in poverty is far more difficult to address, O’Malley says. The constant downward pull of lousy options and poor prospects make economic improvement almost impossible. One misfortunate event—a car breaking down, say—cascades into many others, such losing a job which means inadequate resources to pay for food or shelter or utilities or medicine. Too soon comes the eviction notice and the specter of homelessness. (Several hundred homeless are now camping out in woods behind Waterman Hospital.)

There are ways to work back, but the difficulty of catching up—much less getting ahead—are enormous.

“These kids grow up wondering where their next meal is coming from,” O’Malley says. “They don’t turn in their homework because their lights have been shut off. They have to wait for their parents to get off from work to get to the library, and by then it’s closed. They don’t have internet access so they can’t keep up on their assignments.”

The middle-class experience is so different from those in poverty. To illustrate, O’Malley offered this scenario. “Remember the first day of school? You have all your new clothes on, and your school supplies have that new smell. You start out printing everything so carefully.

“But if you’re living in poverty, you’re lucky if you got a bath. You’re lucky if you had clothes that didn’t have holes in them or weren’t handed down. And you were really, really lucky if you had school supplies. And that’s the way you were starting your first day.  You were already behind the 8-ball.”

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Photo: iStockphoto

Kids who can’t keep up eventually struggle to stay in school, and eventually drop out, many to start families of their own “because that’s the way they were brought up. And then the whole story repeats itself. That’s generational poverty.”

What might be a no-brainer for a middle-class resident—like proper family planning, or a dedication to say in school—becomes daunting if not impossible when every good decision is inhibited by lack of money.

Take good nutrition—healthy food costs money. Obesity is rampant among the poor because high-carb foods like macaroni and cheese are so cheap and filling.  As a result, diabetes is a chronic condition of poverty—a Catch-22, because poverty makes diabetes difficult to treat. “If they are living on social security and it’s toward the end of the month, they often run out of insulin so they go to the hospital,” O’Malley says. “The emergency rooms are getting flooded because people don’t have enough money.”

In Florida, the state legislature’s decision last year not to expand Medicare coverage to the working poor (those making between $8,840 and $11,770 a year) means 567,000 adult Floridians aren’t eligible for Medicare benefits and aren’t covered under the Affordable Care Act—more than half of these in working families.

Especially vulnerable to poverty are the elderly and disabled, O’Malley says. “We had a woman who is 85 who had to attend a family situation in Tampa,” O’Malley says. “She drove her car over there, got lost, couldn’t find her family and then when she did, they said they didn’t need her there. So she stayed in a hotel and drove back to her motor home to find out that her power had been cut off over a $94 dollar electric bill.”

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Photo: iStockphoto

O’Malley also addressed the Lake County Commission, and has invited them to attend Dr. Beegle’s event as well.

Lake County and municipal government could be far more sensitive and helpful to its poor. “Sometimes you have to ask why can’t someone pay their bill? What happened? It shouldn’t be an automatic ‘that’s it, you’re done.’ If there was more case management, somebody could call up a utility company and say, there is this family whose water is going to be turned off, is there someone who could see if an exception could be made?  They could find out what else is going on. Just to to cut them off is wrong.”

She added that case management is best done at the local level, “because when they get someone who has a real issue, they can work with them all the way through.”

Following up on Dr. Beegle’s speaking event, O’Malley hopes to use that momentum to keep building awareness. One thing she’s planning is a half-day poverty simulation workshop under the auspices of the University of Florida.  In it, participants are given a scenario—told, for instance, they are single dad with three kids who is making so much. Then they have to figure out how to cover all of the month’s needs by going to tables representing utility bill representatives, school officials, and social services agencies.  All have rules and procedures which, taken together, make getting by an almost insurmountable task. “It’s so frustrating that people sometimes leave the simulation in tears,” O’Malley says. “That teaches you a lot about what hard work poverty is.”

Another aim O’Malley has is to get care groups in the area to work more together. “There’s a lot of great organizations in our community and county that know how to be able to do some things. But we’re broken away from working effectively with each other,” she says. “Some organizations don’t want to deal with us because they’re over in their corner and want to take care of their own people.”

Breaking the bonds of generational poverty is tough work—both for those struggling to get out of it, and for the rest of the community to properly understand. It’s a nation-wide problem. The United States stands almost alone in the global community in that lays the blame not on poverty, but the people who are poor.

Telling poor people they are the problem “reinforces what Donna Beegle says—people living in poverty think nobody cares,” says O’Malley.

Lake Cares exists because Mount Dora cares, and Tavares cares, and Eustis cares. But to turn the tide of rising poverty in Lake County, the community will need to care a little more—to understand better, support the work more, lend more of a hand, and coordinate better.

It’s not just about being bigger-hearted. It’s also good business. “Its great we’re getting an Innovation District,” O’Malley says. “But when you’re bringing top businesses into a county, you need to show you have the social services to back them up. They will look at that.  They want to be able to see if you are taking care of what needs to be taken care of.”

“If we are going to have our Innovation District, we are going to have to deal with our poverty,” O’Malley says. “To me, its one of those things that has to be addressed so we can pull our way out of it.”

After leaving the Lake Cares facility, I drove to Publix where I bought groceries for the week for my wife and I, as well as food for our cats. We eat good, nutritious food, frugally (we like to think), cooking meals that can last through the week. Still, the bill for the week was almost $200. Then I drove home to the quaint historic house my wife and I have lived in for the past 20 years, admiring as I do houses that are well-kept (and which help buoy the price of my house).

A bright, sunny day, not a cloud in the sky: But I couldn’t help feeling that my simple, not-so-extravagant privilege was girded by a permission to ignore all those people waiting outside Lake Cares Food Pantry for the help they just can’t afford.

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David Cohea, writer (david@mountdoracitizen.com)