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January 13, 2014

Local officials reflect on legacy of 'War on Poverty'

By Jessica Reynolds Staff writer
The Daily Star

---- — Fifty years have passed since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “War on Poverty,” and although significant improvements have been made, area communities still have a long way to go, local officials said last week.

Johnson announced his dedication to an “unconditional War on Poverty,” words that kick-started an economic overhaul he called the “Great Society,” in his State of the Union Address Jan. 8, 1964.

With the establishment of the Office of Economic Opportunity, numerous programs were created to help fight “the war.” Many of these programs, including Head Start, Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America, Home Energy Assistance Program, nutrition assistance, Catholic Charities, Medicare and Medicaid, are still on the battlefront, continuing to combat poverty in communities today.

However, needs persist. John Eberhard, executive director of Delaware Opportunities, said 7,787 people in Delaware County, or 17.1 percent of the population, live in poverty. He said this percentage is higher than the New York state average, 16.1 percent.

Eberhard said 2,395 children, 26.7 percent of children in Delaware County, live at or below the poverty level. According to Eberhard, 287 households, or 475 people, receive public assistance.

Through its extensive programming, Eberhard said, Delaware Opportunities serves 11,000 people.

Eberhard said when Delaware Opportunities was created in 1965, the goal was to identify the needs of low-income people and figure out how to meet those needs. He said one of the first programs created was Head Start. According to Eberhard, there are 221 children in Delaware County’s Head Start. 

Eberhard said the total number of impoverished people in Delaware County has not gone down in recent years, but there have been changes demographically. 

According to Eberhard, poverty among the county’s elderly went from 30 percent in 1964 to roughly 10 percent today. However, the number of children and youth in poverty has increased dramatically, he said. Eberhard said he thinks the increase is because of the large number of single-parent households prevalent today. 

“With only one earner in the family,” Eberhard said, “it can be tough to make ends meet.”

Eberhard said there are many programs available to help low-income parents and children. The Parent Aid Program, which, he said, helps parents who are having trouble raising their children, and the Healthy Families Program, which ensures infants to three-year-olds have access to health care and have the opportunity to grow up healthily.

Eberhard said the organization also helps families by supplying a registry of daycare providers and helping parents find the right program for their children. There are also daycare subsidies so parents can pay for childcare.

“One reason we offer this kind of assistance is to help make it attractive for adults to go to work,” Eberhard said. 

Women, Infants and Children is a well-used program at Delaware Opportunities, Eberhard said. Through WIC, food vouchers, health care referrals and nutritional education are provided to low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and infants and children up to age 5. Eberhard said 900 people a month utilize the WIC program.

Eberhard said The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formally known as the Food Stamp program, is another important program for Delaware County. He said 6,541 Delaware County residents, approximately 3,274 households, currently use the SNAP program. Eberhard said Delaware Opportunities supplies supplementary food to 15 surrounding food pantries, which serve 950 households a month. 

Eberhard said other important programs through Delaware Opportunities include the Home Energy Assistance Program, rental assistance program, Safe Against Violence, employment training programs, services coordination for developmentally disabled people, Big Buddy program and Medicaid. 

Eberhard said the services available to low-income individuals, families, children and elderly are much better today than they used to be.

“I think people living at or below the poverty level have a much better quality of life now,” Eberhard said. “But we still have a ways to go.”   

Commissioner of Schoharie County Social Services Paul J. Brady said, in Schoharie County, the war on poverty has been “a real struggle.”

“We’re all rebounding from a recession we never completely recovered from,” Brady said. “We hear in the media that the economy is getting better, but it’s often hard to see that in our local communities.”

Brady said the biggest employer when he came to Schoharie County in the late 1990s was Guilford Mills, a large plant in Cobleskill that produced lace. After manufacturing relocated around 2001, he said, 500 to 600 jobs were eliminated. Being primarily agricultural, this disappearance of jobs took a toll on the county, he said. About 10 years later, Brady said, the county was faced with an even greater obstacle.

“The flood had a big impact on our economy,” Brady said. “Three years later, there are still a lot of vacant buildings and homes. The flood became part of the fabric of our community.”

Brady said Social Services administers programs such as HEAP, SNAP and Medicaid. According to Brady, HEAP and SNAP are two of the most-used programs in Schoharie County.

“It has been a cold winter so far,” Brady said. “With the cost of fuel oil, people often need help--$600 is not going to last long for some people … It will get 150 gallons of fuel oil, but what do they do when that’s gone?”

If they are eligible, Brady said, they can apply for HEAP, which supplements the heat and utility needs of vulnerable and low-income households. Brady said HEAP provides regular benefits, emergency benefits and repair and replacement of furnaces. 

According to Brady, the usage of SNAP in Schoharie County has gone up dramatically over the past three years. He said SNAP is available to eligible low and fixed income households and is used to supplement grocery budgets. According to the county’s website, food stamp users must work or participate in work-related activities to receive food stamps for more than three months in any 36-month period. 

Brady said food pantries are also being used more than ever and meet a “big need.” 

According to Brady, the percentage of children and youths living below the poverty level in Schoharie County has increased from 16.7 percent in 2005 to 18.7 percent. Even with the expansion of programs available, he said, not all impoverished people seek help.

“There may be a stigma to applying,” Brady said. “Many people are too proud to ask for help.”

But Brady said there have been several ad campaigns that try to remove that stigma from applying for assistance, particularly for food stamps.

“Now it’s much more discreet than it used to be,” Brady said. “Individuals get a card. I can’t remember the last time actual stamps were used.”

Brady said he thinks some people may feel embarrassed or uncomfortable coming directly to the building and applying, or have trouble getting transportation there. According to Brady, application can now be done online through a program called My Benefits. Brady said individuals can also use this to see what programs they would be eligible for. 

Brady said the Schoharie County Community Action Program, which he described as Schoharie County’s version of Delaware Opportunities, acts as a counterpart to his office and is another avenue where people can apply for assistance.

Brady said he doesn’t think Schoharie County will be moving away from a primarily agriculture-focused economy any time soon. He said the area government needs to think about what it can do to attract more business to the area. According to Brady, there are already some incentives in place to try and bring business, as well as residents, back to the county. 

“People are still feeling the affects of the downturn in the economy,” Brady said. “When programs like the food banks are so widely used, we need to ask, ‘how successful are we, really?’ And then decide what we can do to revitalize the local economy.”

Aside from relieving poverty, one of the main goals of Johnson’s War on Poverty was to increase opportunity among minorities, such as African-Americans, the elderly and the disabled, and women.  

Frances Wright, director of the Otsego County Office for the Aging, said the Older Americans Act of 1965 allowed for significant advancement for elderly people. 

Wright said the OFO handles many different benefits programs and services for the elderly, including providing meals, legal support, at-home care and transportation. She also said the OFO helps the elderly complete applications for services such as Medicare savings programs, SNAP and HEAP. 

Wright said the OFO also assists elderly folk socially, whether it’s help with laundry, shopping, a bath, help making arrangements for an appointment or help paying for it. She said 30 percent of people the OFO helps are low-income. 

“We help the elderly access whatever benefits can help them stay in the community, where most people want to be,” Wright said. “We help them make their income go further.”

Job Corps was another important initiative that came out of the War on Poverty. At the Oneonta Job Corps Academy, 291 at-risk students currently live and study for free, according to Human Resources/Center for Communications Director Amy Muehl. Almost all of the students are at or below poverty level, she said.

Muehl said Job Corps students receive academic and career training. Students can choose from a variety of trades, including mechanics, electrical work, health occupations and medical office technology. Upon graduation, students also receive help with job placement, career counseling and relocation counseling.

“It’s a really great opportunity,” Muehl said. “Students can get those hands-on skills that will prepare them for the workplace.”

Daniel Maskin, chief executive officer of Opportunities for Otsego, said the war on poverty in Otsego County is no different than anywhere else in the country. Maskin said 15.7 percent of the overall population, 17.8 percent of children and 7.8 percent of the elderly population are in poverty in the county. There are 395 children in Early Head Start and Head Start, he said. 40 percent of children in the county receive reduced or free lunch, according to Maskin.

“There are a lot of really good educational services here, and there always have been,” Maskin said. 

Building Healthy Families, The Children’s Center and Universal Pre-Kindergarten are a few of the other educational services provided in Otsego County for low-income families.

Maskin said questions remain about if and how current events will affect the services provided to low-income individuals.

“Are federal unemployment benefits going to be extended?” Maskin said. “Will the Farm Bill cut food stamps? These are all things to keep in mind when thinking about the future of poverty in the county.”