Janesville77.1°

Working poor still struggle

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Stacy Vogel
August 17, 2008
— Welcome to the American Dream, where if you’re willing to work, you can support yourself and your family.

Emphasis on the “dream.”


Community Action’s latest needs assessment of Rock and Walworth counties confirms what local poverty advocates have said for years: Having a job is no longer enough to escape financial hardship.


“The story of poverty is also the story of work,” said Lisa Furseth, Community Action executive director.


Community Action completes a study every three years to learn what needs aren’t being met in Rock and Walworth counties. It collected surveys from nearly 650 people, mostly clients of Community Action and other organizations that serve the poor. The results were released Aug. 8.


The organization will complete an updated strategic plan in October based on the needs assessment and other data, Furseth said.


What struck Furseth most about the report was the number of people drawing paychecks but still not able to make ends meet without help, she said.


About 68 percent of respondents lived below the federal poverty line, and 84 percent lived on less than 50 percent of their county’s median income.


Yet 35 percent of the respondents had full-time jobs, and 42 percent lived with someone who had a full-time job. (It’s unclear how many respondents fell in both categories.) Another 30 percent worked part-time.


“That’s kind of a mindset shift that all of us need to make,” Furseth said. “People in poverty are working; they’re just not working in jobs that are going to lift them up.”


Other findings from the study include:


-- Natural gas and gasoline prices are growing concerns for those in need. Half of the respondents listed paying for heating bills as a serious or very serious problem, and 47 percent said the same about paying for gas.


Community Action hopes to work with other organizations to address those needs, Furseth said. For example, it might encourage expanded bus and rideshare services. The organization might also adjust its program offering low-interest car loans to make sure people buy fuel-efficient vehicles.


-- Health care is a mixed bag. About 30 percent listed access to health care as a serious or very serious problem. But those who do access health care have trouble affording it: More than 35 percent listed affording prescriptions, premiums, co-pays, vision care and dental care as problems.


Dental care seemed to be the most pressing need, with 52 percent listing it as a serious or very serious problem.


Rock County is trying to address those issues with offerings such as HealthNet and the Beloit Area Community Health Center, but Walworth County doesn’t offer those resources, Furseth said.


-- The community is meeting some needs. For example, 46 percent of respondents said they used emergency food services, and 42 percent said they’d had a positive experience using the services. Less than a quarter of respondents listed having enough food as a serious or very serious problem.


-- Savings continue to be a problem for low-income people. Only 21 percent said they usually have a savings account for emergencies, and 68 percent said they rarely or never do.


For people without savings, an emergency such as an illness or job loss can lead to a crisis, Furseth said.


-- Education still is unattainable for some people. While only 34 percent listed job training as a serious or very serious problem, 45 percent listed the cost of technical college as a problem and 52 percent listed the cost of college as a problem.


Furseth noted the community is offering extensive job training and educational opportunities to departing General Motors workers.


“That same level of resources is not available to low-wage people who are stuck, if you will, in those jobs,” she said.


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Community Action doesn’t necessarily fault employers for paying low wages, said Lisa Furseth, executive director.


After all, it’s one of those employers.


Community Action operates several daycares in Rock and Walworth counties. Daycare workers make an average of about $10 an hour, and Community Action’s wages are in line with that, Furseth said.


The organization struggles to pay its workers enough to support their families while offering daycare rates low enough for low-income parents to use its services.


For example, a 50 cent raise might not make much difference to workers, but it would cost the organization $60,000 a year, she said.


Instead, Community Action tries to offer non-cash benefits, such as helping employees with budget, credit or housing problems and getting them access to education, she said.


It offers a tiered health insurance program so people making less money pay lower premiums, Furseth said. It also has an emergency loan fund for low-income staff.


Furseth wants Community Action to be a more visible role model for businesses with low-wage workers. The organization should keep looking for ways to help its workers and highlight the resources it already offers, she said.


“It is really a good business to keep us honest,” she said.


FAMILIES IN POVERTY

Organizations such as Community Action are fighting rising odds. Poverty is increasingly alarmingly in Janesville, especially among low-wage workers and single parents.


Check out next Sunday’s edition of The Janesville Gazette for the first part of a three-day series about Janesville families in poverty.



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