Area residents living in poverty discuss stigma, shame that comes with admitting they need help
Sometimes all you can do is put on some lipstick.
When utility shut-off notices and bills are piling up, you’ve been wearing the same clothes for days, all you’ve had to eat this week is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and now you’ve got to choose between repairing your truck and buying Christmas presents for your grandchildren, the best you can do is put on a little lipstick.
That lipstick is a small gesture to make you feel even remotely a part of the world where people work 9-5 jobs, wear new clothes, drive working cars and have well-stocked pantries at home.
Poverty is isolating.
“You have to know your own worth,” said Zandrea Boss, 52, who has struggled with living in poverty her whole life. “That time you spend feeling defeated is wasted. If you utilize what you already have, you’re going to get ahead.”
A weariness comes over the Mecosta resident as she talks. Life has challenged her in many ways, but it hasn’t broken her.
“Show them your beautiful scars ’cause they’re the proof,” Boss said, quoting a line from “Healing has Begun,” a song by Matthew West, as the reason she wants to speak out about poverty.
The Kaufman family, of Big Rapids, recently had a more short-term bout with poverty. Kurt, 48, was laid off from his job at Ford-Visteon in 2009 after almost 20 years as an employee there. His wife of 21 years, Sharon, lost her job the same year and the family of six lived on $1,200 a month from unemployment benefits for awhile – a drastic change from their former $80,000 a year household income.
Kurt qualified for Trade Adjustment Assistance, a federally-funded program that allows workers laid off as a result of foreign trade (like the auto industry) to continue receiving unemployment benefits as long as they are enrolled in continuing education or involved in other job search efforts. After a year at Macomb Community College, Kurt and his family relocated from their home in Canton to Big Rapids so he could finish his automotive engineering degree at Ferris State University.
He completed 44 credits in one year to graduate in August 2012, but with graduation came the end of his assistance through TAA. The Kaufman family found themselves applying for cash assistance through the Department of Human Services for the first time, in addition to the food assistance they’d been receiving since 2009.
“They cut us off from unemployment when he graduated. That’s when we went into the system of getting cash assistance,” said Sharon, 44. “From September to (January), basically we were living on $600 a month. In Canton we had our own home, we bought new cars – all that stuff. (Then) we went to living in government housing and driving 20-year-old cars. It made a big difference.”
Three of the Kaufman’s four children – ages 10, 15, 17 and 21 – lived with them in Evergreen Village, a Big Rapids apartment complex run by the Housing Commission. Their food and cash benefits didn’t cover all their needs, so they turned to Project Starburst for extra assistance. Sharon also volunteered there. In January, Kurt was hired as a software analyst for John Deere in Cedar Springs, Iowa. The Kaufmans relocated early in February, and they are happy to be moving on to a brighter future.
Under the magnifying glass
Boss has not been able to move out of poverty so easily. She grew up in a low-income household in Fort Wayne, Ind. At age 15, she became homeless when she could no longer live with her mother. Boss eventually graduated from high school at age 21 and saw higher education as a tool to break the cycle of poverty. She earned a 4.0 GPA in the first two years of her undergraduate degree and then continued on to earn her master’s degree, both at Central Michigan University, graduating in 1989.
Over the years, she held various jobs as a counselor or social worker, but ultimately her physical disabilities – exacerbated by a car accident during college – prevented Boss from working full time. Raising two children with disabilities, caring for a long-term boyfriend who died of cancer in 2012 and dealing with her own health issues presented other stumbling blocks for Boss.
She still finds things to laugh about – amid the tears – as she talks about her experiences. Grieving is normal, Boss explained, poverty is not a death sentence and the important thing is to never stop fighting for your quality of life.
“I keep saying ‘I have a master’s degree, for God’s sake. I graduated cum laude.’ Why do I keep saying that?” she asked. “You still have to feel useful. I don’t want to feel like my (education) was in vain. Just because I’m not working 40 hours a week anymore doesn’t mean I’m not contributing to society.”
Poverty is a label that’s difficult to shake, Boss said. The shame that comes along with that label is what defeats many people.
“It’s very intimidating when you have to talk to (case workers) and they have expectations of you that you can’t meet,” she said. “You feel small in every regard. … When you’ve got to go into (a service agency), all these people see you standing there. … If you’ve been going in there for 20 years, you feel like ‘yeah, I should have figured something out by now.’ They do get tired of seeing you come back year after year after year.”
Sharon also felt the discomfort of the “poverty label,” especially when she first started applying for assistance.
“When I first went in (to DHS), people would look at you like ‘What are you doing here?’ I felt like I was under the magnifying glass,” she said. “I didn’t look the part (in business casual attire). I’m usually business-minded, so when I go someplace I’m not going in jeans and a T-shirt. I stuck out a little bit. Then with the case workers, it’s like ‘you need to prove all of this to us.’ I understand I need to prove (our need), but it gets to the point of if I didn’t need (the assistance), I wouldn’t be here. I gave them everything they needed, and then I had to supply more.”
People applying for assistance must present documentation proving their identity, income, assets and expenses, said Kim Kilmer, assistance payments supervisor at Mecosta-Osceola DHS.
“They have to look at DHS as a last resort after they’ve exhausted all their resources,” Kilmer said.
The nature of the system for qualifying for benefits prevents some people from trying to escape poverty, Boss and Kaufman agreed.
For example, if a person on assistance quits his or her job – for a reason not deemed as “good cause” – DHS will sanction the case and not provide that person with assistance for a period of time. The first sanction results in loss of all benefits for three months, the second is for six months and the third is for a lifetime. Clients must resubmit their application after a sanction.
For some people, that’s a reason not to “risk” employment; rather than find a job, have it not work out and end up with less assistance than before. Also a raise can lower the amount of assistance people qualify for – depending on the type of income – which makes it difficult for some to do anything but live paycheck to paycheck. DHS factors in only a certain percentage of earned income when calculating the benefits for which they qualify; unearned income, like disability payments, is factored in dollar for dollar and results in a more drastic reduction of benefits.
“People stay stuck because they’re not rewarding people for working.” Boss said. “If you try and you fail, the process begins again. You may end up in a worse position.”
Sharon and Kurt found they didn’t qualify for Medicaid after they lost their health insurance because Kurt’s $1,200 unemployment check was considered too much income. They also had difficulty meeting the rigorous requirements for receiving cash assistance.
“It’s frustrating,” Sharon said. “I understand that you have to spend 40 hours a week looking for a job, but you have to check in every day. If you’re a minute late, you can get a violation. It’s very tough, and I really understand how some people just say ‘I can’t do it.’”
In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau defined poverty as $23,283 for a household of two adults and two children under 18. In 2011, the most recent year for which Census data is available, 17.5 percent of Michigan residents were living in poverty. By comparison, the poverty rate was 17.6 in Osceola County and 25.6 in Mecosta County.
According to DHS, so far in fiscal year 2013, an average of 10,540 people in Mecosta County qualify for some type of assistance each month. In Osceola County, the monthly average is 6,729 people who qualify for assistance.
Poverty looks different for each person. Boss defined it as having to choose between necessities because you cannot afford all the things you need.
“I have some reservation about defining poverty because it comes in so many forms and is caused in so many ways,” she said. “I’d have to get a raise to get to poverty level – what are people like me who can’t even make it to poverty level?”
There is a feeling of judgment that comes with admitting you live in poverty, Boss said, and people have certain expectations for how people in poverty should look, act or live.
“I don’t think I fit the (stereotype) of poverty, because people don’t expect poor people to be educated. But how many of us graduated from college and didn’t get a job?” Boss said. “It doesn’t matter if you have a brand new car or a brand new house. If life took a turn and handed you the poverty bag, now you can’t apply for services until you sell your assets. Well, what do you eat while you’re selling your assets? So the woman who has a fur coat (is drawing benefits), maybe that’s her only coat. Should she not apply because she doesn’t look the part?”
A person’s mindset also has a lot to do with how they experience poverty, Boss said, adding there’s a difference in poverty-mindedness and living in poverty.
“A person with poverty-mindedness doesn’t believe there’s anything they can do,” she said. “Poverty-mindedness is thinking nothing’s going to matter. Hope is thinking everything I do is going to matter. In my mind, everything I do matters. You just do the next right thing.”
“People think people in poverty have a certain mentality of ‘I’m gonna work the system,” Boss added. “You better damn work the system! It’s a double-edged sword there. If they don’t work the system, they’re ‘not using their resources.’ So what is the correct answer for that? I certainly wouldn’t pretend to have it.”
The Kaufmans began to realize they were struggling financially in 2007 when Kurt was diagnosed with colon cancer. He went on disability leave for about 11 months, returned to work in 2008 and then was laid off in 2009. Sharon was working during Kurt’s disability leave so the family did not receive any state assistance, but money was tight and kept getting tighter after Kurt and Sharon lost their jobs.
When the family eventually moved from Canton, the bank repossessed their house.
“We have our regrets at times, but you know what? I think we’re happier now,” Sharon said. “It’s been a really big eye opener. We’ve learned a lot of lessons going from one extreme to the next. We’re realized new cars every two years aren’t important. You don’t to have to compete with the neighbors and what they have. … We’ve already committed to giving back (to local food pantries) for helping us.”
Explaining the family’s financial situation to their children was a difficult, tearful process, Sharon said. The youngest, Ashley, took it especially hard.
“Even after we moved up here, they still wanted to go hang out with their friends,” Sharon said. “It got to the point where we had to sit them down and say ‘We just don’t have the money. We’re really sorry.’”
When they had extra money, Ashley was able to go skating with her friends, but still she couldn’t afford to go as often as she would have liked.
She especially misses being able to play with her best friend, who lived right across the street from her at their home in Canton. It was during a snow day that Ashley reminisced about the snow forts she and her friend used to build together.
Ashley also urged people in more privileged situations not to take their circumstances for granted – something she’d recently learned from her parents.
“We have found ourselves with more family time,” Sharon said. “We made sure our kids understood they have everything they need. They may not have all their wants, but if we’re together as a family that’s the most important thing.”
Finding a way out
In 2003, Boss had to stop working full-time because of her physical limitations. She now spends her time caring for her family and trying to make ends meet.
“You have to re-invent yourself,” she said. “I’ve been a caretaker. Life keeps looking like a tornado every time I try to jump in. … I can’t help everybody else without having some support for myself. And I don’t have any, besides the agencies and professionals who help me.”
Eventually, Boss would like to extend support to others in crisis. Back in college, she came up with the idea for E.A.S.Y. Street (Emotions, Attitude, Spirit and You), an organization to offer support and aid to people in crisis while connecting them with other resources. Boss was set to launch the agency in 2007 when her boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer. She focused her time and energy on caring for him.
Project Starburst has been a consistent source of support for Boss over the years. Her role in the Mecosta-Osceola Poverty Reduction Initiative, where she uses her first-hand knowledge of poverty to provide a unique perspective, also has empowered her.
“PRI gave me back a lot – they gave me a voice, they see me as a professional to be treated with respect because I live it,” Boss said. “It has empowered me greatly. It makes me feel like I have worth.”
While education did not prove to be Boss’ solution to poverty, it was the Kaufman family’s key to improving their circumstances. After Kurt finished his bachelor’s degree, Sharon decided to enroll in the business administration program at Ferris. She plans to continue the courses online or by transferring to another college in Iowa.
“With some people there’s an attitude of ‘I can’t do any better,’ but you can,” Sharon said. “There’s a fear of spending so much money on your education and then having to pay it back. But it’s worth it in the end.”