A look at poverty in North Idaho

Efforts in place to bring 'haves,' 'have-nots' together

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SANDPOINT - The city and the beauty of its natural surroundings get plenty of kudos for being one of the best places to live, retire, and for generally being one the most beautiful places in America.

Glossy magazines tout high-end architecture, sailing on Lake Pend Oreille, or winter skiing. USA Today in 2013 touted the town's cultural and arts community, its wineries and breweries. National Geographic labeled the city one of the top 100 U.S. adventure towns, with great places to play, stay, escape and eat.

Who can deny it? It's a cultural oasis tucked in the North Idaho panhandle.

But beneath Sandpoint's well-planned economic and community development, highly-rated schools, and trendy and increasingly gentrified outer shell, exists a completely different culture, one that has nothing to do with adventure and fine dining and everything to do with economic survival.

There is an impoverished sector of the Sandpoint and greater Bonner County population that exists on a day-to-day basis, where the "tyranny of the moment" doesn't allow people in poverty to think past the emergency of the day.

Such people are in an economic hole, and too often unable to climb out for a variety of reasons. People in poverty see and think about the world differently.

"Being in poverty is a whole different culture," Community Action Partnership employment specialist Shirley Paulison said.

Paulison and CAP are on a mission to bridge the culture gap and bring the Bonner County communities - the haves and the have-nots - together.

According to 2014 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 17.8 percent of the Sandpoint population, or about 1,340 people, and another 5,100 in surrounding Bonner County, live in poverty.

But just what is poverty? There's a litany of definitions - absolute poverty, chronic poverty, episodic poverty - it's a long list. According to the Census Bureau there are 48 possible poverty thresholds. It's not that hard to define for Paulison, based on her 16 years in the trenches of the poverty battle.

"Poverty is a family of four who can't meet basic needs regardless of income."

It can be a disabled person or a senior citizen trying to survive on Social Security who can't pay for the basics like housing and utility bills. These people often must decide which bills to delay paying so they can afford other basic needs, like food.

"They are working families," Paulison said. "People who truly can't get a job. Or they get a job, but the pay is not enough to support themselves and their family."

Minimum wage doesn't cut it any more, according to Paulison, who noted that lower-end wages have remained flat for decades.

The national minimum wage peaked in 1968 at $8.54 per hour, as adjusted for inflation to 2015 dollars, according to the Pew Research Center. Today's national minimum wage, which was last adjusted in 2009, is $7.25, the same as Idaho's minimum wage. But wages have lost 8.1 percent of their value to inflation since the increase. Working a minimum wage job is a losing proposition.

"The minimum wage should be $17 an hour if it grew with inflation," Paulison said of the 1968 wage peak.

In addition to low wages, there is also a lack of financial education and skills that leave many working poor at a disadvantage, whether real or perceived.

The inability to access credit for emergencies or debt consolidation is often one misperception among the poor. They think their only recourse is a payday loan, borrowing money now for repayment - along with a hefty fee - later.

But then the loan comes due, and the borrower is unable to pay both the entire original loan plus the fee - so they get socked with fees and steep finance charges. Things begin to spiral.

"If a person is not in position to have the $500 to begin with, they're not going to be in a position to pay it back in two weeks, four weeks, eight weeks," Paulison said, citing one example where a person ended up paying $2,800 for a $500 payday loan.

Ironically, the person's credit was sufficient for them to qualify for a standard loan, she said.

"They are out to make money off of somebody else's crisis," Paulison said of payday lenders.

Nor is climbing out of poverty just about working harder either. According to Paulison, there are systemic issues that artificially add to the problem as well.

An example: Say a single parent working a full-time job for $8 per hour receives a $1 per hour raise - $160 per month. Good news? Maybe not.

Depending on that single parent's circumstance, that raise could push them over the threshold of eligibility for government services like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. They might also lose their child care subsidy and other benefits.

According to Paulison, such a family might lose anywhere from $300 to $500 in SNAP benefits, and between $400 to $900 in child care. Now that $1 per hour raise suddenly becomes a losing proposition.

"So I'm making $160 per month in a wage increase, but I'm having something like $1,000 taken away in benefits that I cannot afford to lose," Paulison said. "It's like falling off a cliff. You're done."

That sort of circumstance is actually known in social services circles as "the Cliff Effect."

Thus in the current system, people working to better themselves are suddenly and abruptly cut off from the support they rely upon to survive. It's like climbing a ladder out of a hole, only to find the rungs stop halfway up, and you end up back where you started. Or worse.

"So where's the motivation to work?" Paulison observed. "We need to ease people off of their benefits, not just cut them off."

She feels legislation is needed that allows people who are struggling to climb out of poverty to do so slowly and methodically, not suddenly.

"So people can maintain," Paulison said. "We're taking everything away and they are slipping further."

There are other barriers as well. People in different classes of society have different rules, and people from outside of those classes don't necessarily know the rules in the other. They are often hidden from those socialized in a different class.

"When people in poverty have to work in the middle class culture, they don't know those hidden rules, so it makes it difficult for them, and they are going to break those rules," Paulison said.

Paulison referred to people living on the margins as "under-resourced," lacking an understanding of social rules in other classes, lacking role models and people they can access with questions.

"When we say people are under-resourced, it's not just fiscally. It's emotionally, it's motivationally, it's mentally," Paulison said. "All those things are impacted by poverty, by being under-resourced."

Poverty can also be a losing situation for employers who don't understand the challenges of their low-income employees.

Paulison noted that an employer who loses an employee to a job down the street that pays 25 cents more an hour can experience anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 in retraining, plus other on-boarding costs needed to replace the skilled employee they lost for 25 cents.

The worker gets labeled a job-hopper, and employability suffers.

So poverty and low wages affect both an employer's bottom line and the employee's future employability.

"Job retention is big," Paulison said.

So poverty isn't isolated, but has a wider effect on the job, where the working poor and middle classes often meet.

It's there in that confluence of cultures that CAP is focusing a new effort called Bridges to Work, a program aimed at closing the gap between employers and employees to increase employee retention and their economic stability, while reducing costly turnovers. So far eight people have made it through the course.

The 10-week, 10-class program is offered throughout Bonner County. It requires commitment from both sides.

"One class builds on another," according to Paulison.

On the employer side, Bridges to Work offers training to supervisors and managers, be they on a production room floor or in the office. Training can include leadership, emotional intelligence, how to navigate hidden rules, or anything else the employer thinks may be needed.

"We're trying to open up a dialogue between employees and employers," Paulison said, noting that an employee in poverty survival mode looks very different than someone in middle class achievement mode. "It isn't uncommon that they come from two different economic classes."

"Middle class is all about achievement, what college you went to, what you do for a living - poverty's about getting through the day."

Employers are also encouraged to go through a program called Poverty Simulation in concert with the Bridges program. The one-day simulation offers insights into the priorities and mindset of people living in poverty.

Participants go through in 15 minutes what a person in poverty deals with in a week's time, Paulison said.

"You have to accomplish what the person gets a whole week to accomplish."

Thus participants experience the anxiety of people living in poverty every day. The entire simulation lasts about two hours, including a debriefing, "because you need it. People are feeling things that they can't explain."

CAP doesn't have to be working with an employer if they are interested in participating in Poverty Simulation, according to Paulison.

What the program doesn't do is advocate for higher wages, Paulison emphasized.

CAP traditionally conducts what Paulison called "low impact services," where it helps people "take care of the emergency in the moment," things like utility bills, gas vouchers and help with prescription medications.

But CAP also conducts education around issues of poverty. Programs like Bridges to Work and Poverty Simulation are considered high impact services, according to Paulison.

"They change the mindset of the community."

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