In 2007 local media reported the stark dimensions of concentrated poverty for many African-American families in North Omaha. It was, sadly, old news to impoverished residents long beset by low income, high debt, unstable, substandard housing and food deserts. It confirmed, too, what human service professionals like Voices for Children in Nebraska executive director Aubrey Mancuso already knew.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “things haven’t gotten much better. I think we’re largely in the same place. When we think about poverty in Omaha and Nebraska there are two main stories. One, poverty continues to be highly racialized. Children of color, particularly black and Hispanic children, have much higher poverty rates. So poverty’s gone up in general and the groups disproportionately affected by it continue to be. We haven’t made progress addressing those disparities.
“Secondly, there’s poverty despite work.”
Experts say want isn’t exclusive to the unemployed but extends to the underemployed working poor.
Mancuso said, “We often think just finding a job is the solution, and it is about jobs, but it’s about quality jobs that allow you to afford all your expenses, save for a better future, own a home, have a retirement cushion and something to hand down to your children and have a buffer against unexpected health-related expenses, job losses and all those things. It’s about the opportunity to stabilize your income by building assets.”
She said “the reality is more complicated” than pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. “People are doing the best they can with the situation they’ve been given. As a children’s advocacy group our position is we have a collective responsibility to all our kids. Kids are vulnerable and we need to think about how we can help them.”
She noted the recent presidential election revealed how the disenfranchised “sense somehow the deck is stacked against them, and when we’re talking about families in poverty, that’s really true.” She said generational poverty means “families and kids start off behind and face barriers that pile on top of each other.”
“We know poverty is very damaging for children and I think that starts even before birth. Prenatal care, early healthcare visits and early learning experiences are crucial. If parents don’t provide those things, you see consequences later in life.”
Chronic poverty can lead to hopelessness, said Jim Clements, executive director of the Heart Ministry Center.
“As a society I don’t think we appreciate the choices people in poverty have to make on a daily basis. Maybe your car breaks down and you don’t have another way to get to work. so you take out a payday loan to get it fixed, but the exorbitant interest rates get you caught in this cycle of debt you can’t escape. It’s day-to-day survival. It’s not through any lack of trying, it’s just super complex and really hard. But I’ve seen enough people who have turned it around with help and by working hard to know it can be done.”
Clements said even many middle-class Americans are a few big life bumps away from tough times.
“You don’t always know how close to the other side you are. All it takes is a bad series of events.”
Geo LaPole invested everything in his own flea market, where he also lived. Things went well until business dried up. Unable to make the rent, he lost his business and home. He struggled keeping a roof over his head. Then he lost a job. He went through Heart Ministry Center’s Fresh Start program and now works there.
“You’re given the basic things you need to start fresh. It helped me immensely. It gave me access to the pantry, mental health counseling, somebody to listen and to point me in the right direction.”
LaPole said pride prevents some from asking for help.
“I almost didn’t accept the help. I finally said, ‘I deserve help just like everyone else does, why not make myself normal so I can help somebody else.’ Until someone grabs you and helps you, there’s no helping yourself because you don’t know how to help yourself.”