Poverty: Finding solutions is still a challenge

After 50 years of waging war on poverty, there are still plenty of Americans struggling with the issue. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 46.5 million people living in poverty in 2012, a 2.5 percent increase from 2007.

While there’s no silver bullet for solving the poverty problem, putting people to work seems to be the obvious answer. And that requires education as well as a stronger economy.

“I think there are things that can be done to get people out of poverty, like education, but you have to start early,” said Charlotte Keim, executive director of the Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce.

She said programs like the Teen Career Awareness Initiative, a cooperative effort that involves local businesses and schools, can help break the poverty cycle by setting young people on a career path.

“It started out of a Washington County Job and Family Services program. We focus on career awareness and how teens can get a job in their field of interest,” Keim said. “The program uses techniques like job shadowing and mentoring to help students from the eighth grade identify areas of interest and then pursue the education required for those fields.”

The program has been in effect for six years now and has had some positive results, she said.

“We’re seeing more kids declaring careers as they enter high school,” Keim said. “And there’s a lot more work in schools now focused on teaching kids about real world skills like budgeting, banking, or how to balance a checkbook. If their family is living in poverty they may not have learned those things.”

Education is also the key for adults to break the poverty cycle.

“In today’s world you can’t train for one job and expect to have that for the rest of your life,” Keim said. “You have to keep educating yourself and be willing to change careers if needed.”

She said everyone needs a backup plan and should learn a variety of skills to fall back on if they should lose their job.

“The only way to get people out of poverty is to give them economic opportunities,” Keim said. “I think those opportunities exist, but people may have to be willing to learn something new.”

Jeremy Barton, 31, of Coal Run, said more jobs are needed, and businesses create more jobs.

“We need to do away with a lot of government intervention with private business,” he said. “There’s too much red tape to start a business. The government should enable businesses so they can make a profit and hire more people.”

Barton said while “safety net” programs like food stamps and unemployment can help people get by after being laid off, what those folks really want is a good job.

“The government should be helping people move up, not just give them handouts,” he said.

David Haas, president of the Southeastern Ohio Port Authority, said training is more important than ever to secure a good-paying job.

“The days of low-skill manufacturing jobs are long over, and even entry level jobs now require some level of skill,” he said. “And we need to remove the stigma from learning technical trades and job skills. A four-year college education isn’t the only option.”

Haas said labor unions have long recognized that, offering apprenticeships to those who want to learn skills like plumbing, carpentry and electrical trades.

“A lot of people think you have to go to college, which may be fine for some, but I’ve talked to many grads with four-year degrees who are taking opportunities to learn a trade because they couldn’t find a suitable job in their field of study,” he said.

For those who do want a four-year college education, the high cost can be a major barrier. In the 2013 to 2014 school year the total annual average cost to attend an in-state public four-year institution in the U.S. is $18,391, while the out-of-state cost is $31,701, according to the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center.

The average annual cost of a private college education is more than $40,000.

Other countries, including much of Europe, offer a free college education for their citizens, but that’s not likely to become an option in this country, according to U.S. Congressman Bill Johnson, R-Ohio.

“We need to provide better opportunities for an affordable education for everyone, but most Americans don’t want this country to look like Europe,” he said. “This country was built on free enterprise, and in 236 years we’ve built the best education system in the world.”

Johnson said college would be affordable to more Americans if the economy was providing good-paying jobs, but the economy won’t grow until the federal government loosens regulations that keep businesses from generating those jobs.

Keim said assistance is available to help train displaced workers for new careers when they lose their jobs, but that help sometimes falls short.

“We need to find a way to subsidize people who are truly seeking a new career by pursuing an education that will result in employment,” she said. “Some people may be in a two-year program, but their unemployment or other assistance runs out after a year-and-a-half, so they have to drop out and find a minimum wage job to support their families.”

Both Keim and Haas noted a growing obstacle to job-seekers is passing required testing for drugs.

“Employers say they’re having difficulty finding people who can pass a drug test and show up for work every day,” Haas said. “Drug use is putting incredible pressure on businesses’ ability to hire.”

He added that some people who are able to work won’t because they can rely on government safety net programs like food stamps and unemployment benefits.

“We have to remove some of the incentives for people to stay on government benefits so they’ll want to go to work,” Haas said. “I’ve had some people tell me they can do better on government assistance than going to work.”

Candy Nelson, supervisor with Washington County Job and Family Services, said there is a real need for the safety net programs.

“When you’re only making minimum wage it’s hard to pay the bills, and some people have no income at all,” she said. “We’ve been extremely busy lately, and a lot of people are coming in that we’ve never seen here before.”

But Nelson noted obtaining government assistance is not a totally “free ride.”

“It used to be considered ‘easy cash’ but now you have to be working or seriously looking for work to collect most benefits,” she said.

Nelson, too, noted drug use is a problem that keeps many people in poverty.

“I think the drug problem is huge,” she said. “There should be more programs to get people off drugs-sending them to prison without a drug rehabilitation program is not the answer.”

Toney Dickel, 23, of Parkersburg believes anyone who receives government assistance should be tested for drugs regularly before they can receive benefits.

“They should also be required to do some kind of work to give back to the community, and the government assistance should be temporary, not a permanent way of life,” he said. “Those who are working are supporting these people with our taxes.”

Ben Smith, 29, of Marietta, said some of those living in poverty are former prison inmates who have served their time, but have difficulty finding a job when they return to society.

“I believe in second chances,” he said. “They may have to be monitored somehow, but if these people need help, give them help, including eduction if needed, to find jobs and get them out of poverty.”

As for improving the local economy to generate more employment opportunities, Haas said organizations like the port authority and Marietta Community Foundation are working to draw more businesses into this area.

“The community foundation has developed a program called ‘Vision’ that markets this area to attract businesses by showing what a great place Marietta and Washington County is to live, work and play,” he said.

Haas said the idea is to highlight the attractive qualities of the area like a low crime rate and no issues with heavy traffic. He said technology has made many jobs “portable,” meaning people can work almost anywhere via computers and other devices.

In addition to marketing the area to companies, Haas noted the growing shale oil and gas industry is bringing a host of job opportunities to Southeast Ohio and West Virginia.

“But we need a workforce prepared to take those jobs,” he said.