Writers note: I met Ashley while studying at West Virginia Northern Community College – we hit it off immediately. We shared stories of college and growing up. I remember talking with Ashley about her experiences in social work and it was then that I realized how passionate she was about poverty, service, and education. Ashley radiates joy and her answers below express her deep determination to help others. This is Ashley.
How have Safety Net Programs impacted your life?
This is a simple question with a not-so-simple answer. I could make it simple and say, “Safety Net Programs have positively impacted my life,” but this would not even come close to giving these programs the credit they deserve. The federal government has 13 assistance programs they categorize as “safety net programs” and these are the welfare programs often stereotyped into “handouts for the lazy who don’t want to work”. The thirteen programs, for those who are unfamiliar, are Negative Income Tax (EITC and CTC), SNAP (EBT Food Stamps), Housing (HUD), SSI, Pell Grants, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), Child Nutrition (school lunches and after school food programs), Head Start, Job Training, WIC, Child Care, LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance for heating and cooling), and Lifeline. Of these 13 programs, over my lifetime I have benefitted from 7. So, approximately 54% of the programs the government offers have been the difference between affordable food, education and childcare for not only myself but for my kids.
Unfortunately, I’m a second generation recipient for the food-related assistance programs. My parents did the best they could with what they had, but for a while we had WIC, food stamps, and we always qualified for free/reduced lunch at school. I know now as an adult how hard it was for my parents, as I am trying desperately to break the cycle and not succumb to generational poverty. In my household, SNAP and WIC have been the difference between whether we had enough formula for our kids over the last 2-3 years. I tried breastfeeding, but for various reasons, I was unsuccessful. I was able to go longer breastfeeding with my second, but it was nearly impossible to balance the responsibilities of work with a pumping schedule and I had to switch to formula.
And when it comes to child care, Early Head Start and the Child Care Resource Center (CCRC) have been invaluable during this time. The average cost of child care is $35 per day per kid (sometimes more). I have two children that require child care so I can work and my husband can continue to finish his degree (he graduates in December and I am so proud!). The cost per month for my children to go without assistance is $1400.00. I make $13.51 an hour, with two Bachelor degrees and 5 years’ experience in the field of Higher Education. If I brought home every penny of that salary, before taxes, I would bring home $2026 and some change. Realistically, though, after I pay for health insurance, contribute to my 401(a), and pay taxes, I bring home about $750 every 2 weeks. There is no way we could afford to keep our children in daycare without these amazing programs.
Speaking of higher education—my degree would not be possible without the assistance I received from the Pell Grant. My husband and I both have been recipients of this amazing financial aid opportunity. We have over $100k in student loans between us, but that amount would be much greater if not for this fabulous program.
And… speaking of taxes, we are in the lowest tax bracket. Due to this, we are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC). This program allows what we pay into the government to come back to us at the start of the year. (This program does not extend into state taxes—WV gets to keep every penny we send them.) Most people assume that people like us take that money and go by a yacht or electronics or whatever the hip kids spend their refunds on these days. Last year, our refunds went 100% into bills, reducing our debt, and winter clothes for our kids. We didn’t invest in that yacht… maybe this year?
If you had the opportunity to speak to the people who have the power to improve the lives of people in poverty, what would you say?
I wish I had the adequate words and that I were articulate enough to explain how much this issue hits home for me. If you’re fortunate enough to have more than enough, anything you can do for those who don’t have even enough, there’s something beautiful about giving. I don’t necessarily mean money. Our most valuable resource is time. We can give our time to assisting programs and volunteering for organizations that do the heavy lifting to make better lives for those in our communities who need a hand to hold.
When I went to college, I had the fortunate pleasure of meeting a professor named Dr. Jim Stinespring. I spent a great deal of time with Dr. Stinespring outside of a classroom as part of the Alderson-Broaddus Mission Team. Dr. Stinespring lived exactly the way he preached. Every sporting event we ran the concession stands for he was right in the nitty gritty running back and forth through the booth doing the grunt work while the rest of us were all hands on deck.
The Mission Team provided me the opportunity to visit Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, Dr. Stinespring taught me a really valuable lesson which has changed my perspective on everything regarding charity and “justice”. We were at a gas station grabbing some snacks to take back to our compound. When we were loading into the van, a homeless man came to the van asking for money. He was dirty, he smelled and he looked like he hadn’t eaten in a while. We shut the door on him and drove back to the compound. This weighed really heavily on my heart and Dr. Stinespring could tell. He sat down with me on the porch under the stars and explained that we could have handed the man money. It could have been used for a day. The reason we are in Nicaragua is to provide long term solutions and empower the citizens with opportunities to be used for months, years, maybe even decades. We can provide a person charity. And there is nothing wrong with charity, but many times charity leaves the person in a place where we don’t empower them, we empower their circumstance. Justice is the act of using charity to give a person the tools to take their circumstances and make opportunities, not dead ends.
Help give our communities justice, and, when appropriate, a little charity.
How do you believe education impacts poverty?
There is zero doubt that education impacts poverty. And, it’s reciprocal. Poverty often affects education. I graduated from a high school with a large population of low-income students. Most of us graduated high school, but many went on to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Some had kids right out of high school and didn’t go to college. Some went straight to the mines or plowing fields on farms. We need these occupations—and they are so important to our economy. But, they often don’t produce long-lasting financial security. The mines have been closing on and off, and coal, as great as it is, can only be sustained for so long. Farming has seen a decrease in productivity with the new tariffs. When these jobs stop producing sustainable income for their families, a lot of these people are left with skills but sometimes nowhere to apply them. Going back to school after unemployment or financial hardship is difficult—especially with children. I’d know. My husband and I are doing it.
Education is powerful. Growing up, I knew we were broke. My parents didn’t hide this. But, my parents taught me one of the most valuable lessons. We had an unbelievable amount of books in our house. Books on history, art, literature. Books about dragons and soldiers, religion and poetry. When we would go to the Goodwill, my parents would let me spend money to buy old textbooks that ended up in the bookshelves and I would practice for hours writing new words, looking up new ideas and answering comprehension questions at the end of units. “Money comes and goes. In an instant you can go from a mountain of wealth to a pile of rags. But, education and knowledge are lasting through every hardship, every curse, and every trial.”
I have lived in the Appalachian region my entire life. West Virginia is my home, and it is a beautiful state that I love with every fiber of my being. USNews.com has us listed at an overall rank of 47 out of 50 in the United States. We are ranked 45th in education, 49th in the economy, 50th for infrastructure, and 45th for quality of life. A report in the Herald Dispatch from September of this year reported that our poverty rate increased to 19.1%. WVNews.com reported around the same time that WV has not seen a DECREASE in poverty since the recession. In 2017, it was reported that West Virginia had the lowest median household income among the 50 states. Nearly 20% of our population lives in poverty. With our priority for education being so incredibly dismal, is it any surprise that our poverty levels are increasing?
The World Health Organization reported that in addition to linking poverty to education, poverty is linked to mental health. In a June 2004 WHO World Mental Health Consortium, information was provided that stated common mental disorders are about twice as frequent among the poor as the rich. Evidence suggested a 150-200% higher prevalence among populations falling within the low-income guidelines. People who suffer from mental health and fall within poverty guidelines are less likely to be motivated to complete a post-secondary education, even if they are able to begin one.
There is a common belief that those who are poor are that way because they don’t work to change their circumstances, aren’t interested in education or services to help them get out of their hardship, and rarely have the work ethic needed for a valuable workforce. If that were true, I’d not be involved in this discussion. When we begin to value education and consider it one of our greatest resources, when we invest in the education of our people, we will start to see a shift in these numbers. We can blame the teachers, we can blame the parents, but no matter who you blame, there is no denying that with better resources, we can change WV for the better.
What do you believe is the most harmful stereotype about poverty?
I touched on this a little earlier, but there is a common belief that those who are poor simply haven’t put in the effort to not be that way, or that they are more comfortable receiving hand-outs than taking a job. I have worked as many as 3 jobs at a time, and yet I still found my way to the mercy of my husband’s parents, who allow us to stay in one bedroom with our two toddlers, provided we pay what we can pay for bills. We don’t even make enough to have our own housing (which I am anticipating will change at the start of the year).
One of my favorites is that “if the job doesn’t pay enough, just get a different job.” This is a simple solution to a complex problem. The take-home pay isn’t enough. But what if the job provides you with health insurance and a retirement plan? What if you can get tuition assistance for yourself or your family? The trade-off sometimes is “Do I make enough to pay my car payment and car insurance or do I make sure when my child gets the flu or chickenpox (which both happened over Thanksgiving) that I can get them the care they need?” I elect to drive a 20+ year old vehicle that is falling apart for a job that pays most of the bills, so my children can get medical care in the event of an emergency. Even with insurance, I did not have a primary care physician for nearly 2 years because I didn’t want to have to deal with co-pays and deductibles. I will pay them for my husband and children, but I still put my own health on the back burner.
And, one of the hardest things for me to see is the assumption that “people on food stamps eat better than my family”. The judgement that comes with pulling out my EBT and WIC cards at the store leaves me walking to my car ashamed. I try to make only 1-2 trips a month because every item that is scanned, I see the look on the cashier’s face when they realize that I’m going to be using food assistance benefits. I buy food that allows me to make meals stretch. This time of year, that’s a lot of soups. The majority of the foods I purchase are fresh fruits and vegetables and the cheapest meat—usually on-sale right before it expires. I will buy an economy pack of chicken and cook it the night I buy it so we can use it all week for soup, casseroles and sometimes tacos. I don’t buy 2 cases of energy drinks and 12 bags of chips. I don’t buy cases of Bud Light with the cash in our account, and neither of us smoke. We just are your average family with 2 toddlers, trying to find something besides Ramen and Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese to feed them. Because our kids might have parents that are broke, but they shouldn’t be forced to forego nutrition because we’re struggling.
What would your life look like without access to programs like SNAP and Medicaid?
A lot more “past due” notices on bills, a lot more “sick” days to watch our kids when we can’t afford childcare, and a lot more frustration about why, when we’re doing everything society says we’re supposed to do to achieve the American Dream, we’re unable to get ahead.
What makes you optimistic about your future?
My husband is graduating in December in a field where there is decent pay and a projected increase in employment (cybersecurity). And I am anticipating graduating with my Master’s in Special Education either Fall of 2019 or Spring of 2020. No one field will likely be enough to help us change our circumstances, but with us both going into fields that provide benefits in addition to relatively decent pay, we might stand a chance to not need Safety Net programs.
WIC requires families to set personal goals. Since day one, when I was asked, “What goal do you have for yourself in the next _ weeks/months?”, I have had the same goal, “To call you before my next appointment and cancel, because this month we have enough.”
I have never been one to dream of abundance. Everyone dreams every now and then about winning the lottery or inheriting a fortune from a rich estranged aunt. Me? I dream that one day, I’ll have just enough. My bills will be paid, my kids will be fed, we will have our own space to watch them grow, and that they’ll get an education that allows them opportunities to end the cycle and not need to set foot in a DHHR, WIC office, or ask for help paying for their child’s daycare.
And, if we get there, maybe I’ll wish for a little more so I can give someone else a little of what we have: enough.