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The changing face of poverty

By Kim Whisenhunt, Operations Manager

Part 2 of 3-part series

A car pulls into the parking lot and a well-dressed couple gets out. They are here at Tri-Lakes Cares looking for help, but they don’t look like they need it.

There are two types of poverty: generational poverty and situational poverty. Generational poverty is when a family has lived in poverty for at least two generations. Situational poverty is when a family’s income and support is decreased due to a specific life change: a job loss, divorce or death in the family.

For many years, Tri-Lakes Cares encountered mostly generational poverty; however, this changed during the 2008 housing market crash. We suddenly were seeing an increase in families swept into situational poverty. These were families who had never dealt with being on “food stamps” or Medicaid – this was a completely new world for them.

This new type of client was definitely different from the typical generational poverty client we served, with different needs and expectations. And, it involved a learning curve for our staff and volunteers too.

I can remember how many of us were used to seeing the average client come to us with an older model vehicle often in disrepair and unreliable. Suddenly, our new client was driving a newer or expensive car and many wondered why they were here, asking “Why don’t they get rid of that car and buy a used car?” or “How can they live in Jackson Creek or Woodmoor and be our client?” These were families who lived in middle class neighborhoods who had mortgages; prior to the housing market crisis they were living within their means.

So, in our middle class minds (staff and volunteers) selling a new or expensive car makes sense. You can then use those funds to help with your financial crisis. But, imagine how hard it would be to do that – the newer car is reliable, it doesn’t require any repairs, and you need it to go to job interviews, shuttle your children to school and go to appointments. Unless your vehicle is paid off, selling it is not lucrative. We all know that vehicles go down in value so if you have a car payment, you still owe on your car. And, you never get the full value of the car when you sell it. If you do sell it, now you have to find a reliable, less expensive used car – coming up with $4,000 to $5,000 to pay for it and then maybe have to make repairs on it more frequently. Suddenly, it makes sense to keep a new car, making a $300 to $400 a month car payment.

So, that young couple with the new car may not look like the typical person living in poverty that we might have in our mind but circumstances have forced them to come to Tri-Lakes Cares seeking help. First impressions are deceiving and until you know their story, you don’t know the reasons for their need.

In our next blog post, we’ll talk about “Getting Ahead” – a workshop series designed to help those who want to move out of poverty and providing them with tools and understanding to do that.

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