What is the face of poverty at Tri-Lakes Cares?
By Kim Whisenhunt, Operations Manager
Part 1 of 3-part series
We are beginning a short series of posts, looking at who it is we serve and trying to answer the question “Who is the typical Tri-Lakes Cares client?” When someone says “poor” or “living in poverty”, what do you see in your mind’s eye? The unkempt person standing with a sign on the street corner? The unemployed woman hanging out at the park?
But, it may not be who you think it is or what you think poverty should look like. It is tempting to think that anyone who works should not be classified as poor, however poverty is not really about the lack of work. Rather, it is about the lack of compensation to be stable in living. Tracy McMillan said it very clearly that “the qualification for being poor is not race or education, but an insurmountable gap between income and cost of living” (What do we think poverty looks like? 2017).
Tri-Lakes Cares serves five zip codes: 80132 (Monument); 80133 (Palmer Lake); 80908 (portion of Black Forest); 80921 (northern Colorado Springs); and, 80840 (the U.S. Air Force Academy). To understand why we serve these areas and why we have pockets of poverty here, one must understand the cost related to residing in these areas. For example, according to FactFinder.gov in 80132 the average, or mean income, is $138,637. The population of Monument is close to 19,700 and 10% – or close to 2,000 individuals – live at or below the Federal Poverty Level, or FPL. The FPL is the economic indicator the U.S. government uses to determine who is eligible for federal subsidies and aid. It is important to note that the FPL is the same whether or not you live in a rural farm town or in Manhattan; it does not take into consideration the cost of living in different areas.
Monument used to be a sleepy highway town. I know this because I have been a resident for over 40 years and the changes are notable. The cost of housing has skyrocketed with rent not far behind. The average mortgage in Monument is $2,100 and the average rent is $1,500. For a better perspective, the average family of four that we may serve is earning less than $25,000 per year, which is about $2,100 per month gross income (the same amount as the average mortgage). If you then add on the cost of running a household – utilities, groceries, childcare and so on – one can see the struggle to make ends meet. Many of our families living at poverty level have been Monument residents for decades and have been our clients for several years, struggling to make ends meet in the changing economic picture of our local community.
Interestingly enough, many families in this area make much more income than those in poverty, but as you can see from above, the cost to live here can be a challenge for many. All it can take is one job loss and a family can be catapulted into a difficult financial situation.
Middle class families are sometimes be just one paycheck or job loss away. They will come to us having lost a high paying position due to layoffs and cannot find new employment immediately. They have a $2,000 mortgage, lose their job, use up all of their savings, and then suddenly they become our new client. If they sell their home, pay off outstanding bills and find a lower paying job, they still have to come up with the deposit for a rental and then pay in rent almost the same amount they paid in mortgage, no longer building up equity. Getting assistance from Tri-Lakes Cares to stay in their home is often the little nudge they need to get back on their feet. Feeding a family can also cost quite a bit and that is another way we help. Through our food pantry, the typical family saves about $200 a month in food and sundries and are able to use those savings to help pay other household bills.
In addition to families seeking help, many of our clients are senior citizens on fixed incomes living on their social security benefits. Some regular clients are veterans, also surviving on retirement and other benefits. Like our families, they have been residents of Monument for decades and struggle to live in an area with an increasing cost of living.
I hope that this will encourage you not to make a fast judgement on what someone in poverty should look like or how they should live. A Tri-Lakes Cares client could be one of your neighbors, your friends, your children’s teachers, your co-worker, or your pastor. Anyone can run into an unfortunate series of events that brings them to our door and we are help to help without judgement.
If you know of someone who is struggling (or you, yourself, need help), we encourage you to refer them to us. Tri-Lakes Cares is open Mondays and Thursdays in the afternoon from 12 to 3p.m. and again in the evenings from 6 to 8 p.m. for those that work in the daytime.
Watch for our next blog posting which will talk about the differences in generational and situational poverty and how you can’t go by first impressions.