(originally appeared in the Bucks County Courier Times and Intelligencer, 10/23/17)
By Erin Lukoss, Executive Director
In the past few days since the U.S. Census released its American Community Survey findings on the increase in poverty in Bucks County this year (by .5%), I have heard from many people who are stunned by this statistic and the idea of poverty in Bucks in general. Here? In Bucks County? With its rolling hills and vibrant neighborhoods?
Yes, the truth is that poverty exists here in Bucks County. As the lead anti-poverty, non-profit agency in the County, we have worked for over 50 years to help people not just to cope with poverty, but to leave it permanently. Poverty impacts families in every zip code, but it is heavily concentrated in Lower Bucks County, where more than half of the 40+ food distribution sites we assist are located. The Census report stated that 40,818 Bucks County residents are poor, representing 6.6 percent of the total population.
Why the increase this year? There are many theories: companies leaving the county, eliminating good paying jobs; families burdened with medical costs from a health crisis; elderly on fixed incomes; an opioid epidemic that robs people of their health and productivity; a lack of public transportation to get to work and school; an influx of residents escaping living conditions elsewhere; a minimum wage that makes living in Bucks County more difficult. The answer is “all of the above.”
In Bucks County, a living wage for a family of three is $25 per hour. Two parents, each working a full-time, minimum-wage job, earn less than two-thirds of a living wage. The math is clear. The solution for getting out of poverty is to earn more money. That almost always means additional training and education, and a job that pays a living wage.
The pathway out of poverty is clearly documented by graduates of our Economic Self-sufficiency Program. A signature program of the Opportunity Council, it matches clients who are committed to working on self-sufficiency with an experienced, dedicated coach, who helps them assess their situation and set goals. Each plan is highly individualized, but almost always centers on the education and training needed to secure stable employment.
In our most recent graduating class, clients had more than tripled their minimum wage salaries through additional training and education, and had left behind all forms of government subsidies. The key to the program’s success is that many, for the first time in their lives, have someone who “has their back” and supports and challenges them to succeed.
Nine percent of the county’s children live below the poverty line, representing 8,903 children and teens. It is critical that we break the cycle of “generational poverty” that is characterized by literacy and educational deficits that hamper decision-making and the ability to find resources. Nothing is more gratifying than seeing an entire family attend graduation and knowing that the cycle of poverty is broken for the children, or having a young adult whose parent graduated from our self-sufficiency program a few years back show up during a semester break from college to volunteer at a food center site to pay it forward.
In our efforts to end poverty in Bucks County we have many critical partners: our County Administrators, other nonprofits with similar missions, United Way of Bucks County, Bucks County Community College, Rolling Harvest Food Rescue and its network of farmers, St. Mary Medical Center, Delaware Valley University, Philabundance, the Coalition Against Hunger, places of worship, civic-minded businesses, and thousands of community volunteers.
The community response to helping to reduce poverty has made all the difference. Support has included financial donations, donations of used cars so that people can get to that job interview or school, help in the fields gleaning crops for our food distribution network, or providing one-on-one financial and/or emotional support to our economic self-sufficiency families.
This latest U.S. Census report is a Call to Action. To learn more about poverty and how you can get involved in the community, visit our website at www.bcoc.org. You will find many opportunities to volunteer, as well as invites to attend information/networking sessions where you can become more involved in helping your neighbors in need.