Many residents across Pennsylvania and the United States are living in poverty. At its core, poverty is the lack of adequate money and financial resources to meet basic needs. Access to adequate resources is not just about overcoming personal or individual barriers. It is important to recognize that government policies and social service support system failures hamper the ability of individuals to become self-sufficient. To better understand the depth and breadth of poverty and how it affects our communities, Senator Art Haywood visited multiple regions throughout Pennsylvania in 2019.
Referred to as the “Poverty Listening Tour,” Senator Haywood held statewide public meetings and private listening sessions to hear directly from persons struggling to find the necessary money and financial resources to meet their basic needs for living. These discussions focused on individuals and their methods of addressing the daily impediments to accessing wages, services, and supports needed to become self-sufficient and find a path off public assistance programs.
Public hearings were held in Philadelphia, Lock Haven, Erie and McKeesport. There were also meetings in Scranton and the Germantown area of Philadelphia, as well as discussions with providers and local organizations. Additional follow-up interviews were held in Erie.
This dialogue, discussion and exchange of information focused on methods used to meet basic needs, probing for solutions from those lacking food, income, family-sustaining jobs and housing.
The findings reveal a portrait of courage and determination by individuals dealing with often persistent problems, in difficult environments, amid a failing system of federal, state and local support programs. The stories are compelling – as is the need for immediate solutions.
The goal of this report is to educate policymakers about poverty and influence policy development to address the systems causing resource depravation, increase resources and raise the income of people who are in the throes of poverty. The report contains significant data detailing the barriers to accessing resources and raising income, including first-person accounts and data-driven materials.
In addition, poverty is examined by geography, showing both how different and similar the struggles are among urban, suburban and rural constituencies. The report utilizes information gained from hearings in Lock Haven, Erie and Scranton, along with material from providers to examine poverty from a regional perspective.
The summary of testimony from the Poverty Listening Tour confirmed elements of poverty that are well known. Those who testified cited a lack of money and financial resources as main factors contributing to their poverty experiences. They also said that while there is an availability of poverty-wage jobs, few saw an immediate path toward long-term, family-sustaining employment. Almost all individuals described the low-wage job churn – one low-wage job succeeded by another low-wage job.
In addition, many testifiers noted inadequate housing and concerns with transportation as issues they dealt with in their lives. Many noted there are few alternatives if local housing stock and transportation are unavailable.
The testimony also raised other critical issues. From uncertain health care access, domestic violence issues, lack of education opportunities and administrative and bureaucratic problems, there were multiple items cited as obstacles during testimony throughout the state.
In addition to overall issues noted during discussion, local issues were mentioned as well. Along with individuals offering their observations, talks with provider panels about specific regional issues were instructive.
This report contains a full examination of challenges, barriers, obstacles and systemic impediments faced by individuals. By fully understanding key issues, long-lasting and meaningful policies can be crafted to reduce suffering and provide pathways allowing individuals to overcome poverty.
The report also examines various obstacles to overcoming poverty. Referencing other resources, reports and studies, Senator Haywood’s report identifies a list of barriers to accessing adequate resources and wages to meet basic needs, including:
- Family Support
- Child Care
- Low-Wage Jobs
- Health Care
- Criminal Records
- Financial Literacy
- Education Access and Attainment
- Mental Health
- Substance Abuse and Addiction
- Loss of Public Assistance via the “Benefits Cliff”
Each of the factors identified were cited by testifiers during the Haywood 2019 Poverty Listening Tour.
Poverty Listening Tour Policy Recommendations
One of the principal goals of the Poverty Listening Tour was to listen to those directly impacted by poverty and then develop effective policies to reduce systemic and individual obstacles. The compelling personal stories provided during this tour, regardless of region, demonstrate many of the factors that complicate efforts to improve circumstances. These further illustrate the great difficulty of crafting a one-size-fits-all solution to deep-rooted poverty.
It is important, therefore, to recognize that any proposed solution, even when universally and ably applied, may not resolve all issues. Based on the testimony presented and from the exploration of this issue subsequent to the hearings, a menu of policy and operational alternatives were discussed to address poverty.
Some of the suggestions made during the tour have been examined. Others have already been implemented in full or in part. Regardless, it is important to identify the options that were generated from listening to first person accounts of poverty. The following list includes those recommendations while detailing the branch of government or governmental operation responsible for executing policy to engage action:
Poverty Policy Recommendations:
Create an Office of Economic Opportunity under the governor to address economic instability, poverty and deep poverty and seek ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government services that serve low-income individuals (legislative);
Establish the PA CARES Council, comprised of community service providers, legal service organizations, county assistance officers, employers, training and workforce development providers, and state secretaries from DHS, DCED, L&I, Education, Health, DDAP, Transportation, Corrections, DMVA and Aging to advise the new Office of Economic Opportunity (legislative);
Establish the Germantown Poverty Relief Initiative, a three-year pilot program to help single women with children escape poverty. The program would help coordinate government and private workforce development organizations, educators and employers in Southeast Pennsylvania. It would also provide targeted outreach and marketing; adult education to enhance workforce and academic skills; career and financial coaching; and job training and placement in apprenticeship or permanent jobs (administrative/legislative/budget);
Improve direct departmental outreach to individuals who qualify for social services to encourage greater program engagement (administrative);
Seek maximum participation for all eligible benefit programs, and encourage voter registration (administrative);
Create a public marketing and outreach campaign to destigmatize poverty in our communities; and provide information for accessing resources, including safety net services and job training programs (administrative/budget);
Create a coordinated advocacy system that identifies individuals and families in need of social service interventions; and assign trained case managers to create customized plans for self- sufficiency at every stage and in every need sector (e.g. legal guidance and representation in asserting their rights, mental and occupational therapists, education and job specialist) (administrative);
Employ and train caseworkers through the Office of Economic Opportunity who will reach into under-utilized communities to find workers to fill employment needs/and coordinate social services and program involvement (administrative/budget);
Enhance intake training and boost pay for county assistance counselors (budget);
Add workforce development and soft skills – such as resume development, budgeting and time management – to caseworker training regimens (administrative);
Require county assistance offices to build, develop and update databases and post resources to better coordinate benefits with community non-profits, advocacy groups, churches and faith-based organizations (administrative);
Enact a $15 minimum wage (legislative);
Study the “benefits cliff” that discourages people from working toward self-sustainability due to program income eligibility limits (legislative);
Consider establishing a Pennsylvania Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and how it can be used to reduce long-term poverty, stimulate job opportunities and reduce dependence on public assistance (legislative);
Enhance state-funded childcare subsidies, and fund childcare at job sites and worker training facilities (legislative/budget);
Encourage integrated regional planning to make the transportation system more accommodating for workers and employers (administrative);
Start a rural transportation pilot program. Use fleet vehicles such as school buses to provide other transportation needs when not directly in service. Encourage and incentivize health care providers and employers to provide transportation services (legislative/administrative);
Encourage and invest in more affordable housing options (administrative/legislative);
Enhance state veterans’ outreach efforts to help coordinate programs for those who are discharged to limit eligibility gaps for social service programs (administrative); and
Support more adult education, job training and outreach programs (administrative/legislative/budget).