The unheard cry of the rural poor

November 19th, 2015

I am well-educated, gratefully-employed and poor.

At 35, with a graduate degree under my belt and working for a non-profit organization that serves rural communities, I do not always know how I am going to afford life. Earlier this year, I found myself in an unspoken yet familiar panic as I faced an all-of-a-sudden (because spacing out a dwindling supply of generic Lexapro is not a good idea) ambush of medical bills. Self-pay (read “uninsured”) appointments came with a 20% discount, but to renew both my depression medication and birth control, I had to pay $150.00 total for two appointments, one within a week of the other. That kept me on schedule for both prescriptions, though by the time I exchanged cash for medicine, I added another $50.00 monthly expense.

Combine that $200 with $400 in rent, $200 in student loan payments, $55 in cell phone expenses, $225 for car and insurance, and I hit $1080 in bills alone for one month of survival. Deciding to feed myself within the USDA Food Plans scale ($167-$332), transport myself in a fuel-efficient Focus ($75-$100), and keep myself, my clothes, and my apartment clean ($25-$40), I was looking at the $1,347-$1,552 range. In one month, I clear $1550 and still have a credit card bill to pay. With student loans also swimming heavy in interest, both of those debts are getting by month-to-month, much like me.

Yet according to the North Carolina Division of Social Services, I am $2,008 over the maximum gross annual income percentage allowable for food and nutrition assistance. With a gross salary of $25,000 per year and my take-home pay just over $20,000, I make too much money to get help with a basic need.

In rural Appalachia, specifically western North Carolina, I am poor but not in poverty. I might even be considered privileged. I have reliable transportation, a must in a town where the already limited, weekday-only, public transportation shuts down at 5:00 p.m. and—depending on just how rural you are—few, if any stores or resources are a walk away. I do not have a spouse, a child or a pet. I am within a 25-minute drive of immediate family, should times get even tougher. I rent an apartment at the mission and retreat agency where I work, providing me with access to some discounted meals when missions teams and our county’s chapter of the Rotary Club are dining on campus. I am in generally good health, though better when taking both prescriptions every day.  

Compared to my surrounding population in Clay County where one out of every three children is food insecure, I am living on the sunny side. In an area where a number of kind-hearted and appreciative folks come to retire, many who have spent generations in these mountains have and will remain focused on today’s needs, not retirement’s possibilities. Rural poverty is prevalent and not going anywhere soon. Even with my privilege of "poor but not impoverished," the cost of financial instability has occasionally meant taking one medication every 2-3 days to avoid refilling and paying for two from the same paycheck. That’s planning ahead.

Like the many who want to do more than bandage a temporary fix on a long-standing issue, the question of where to begin is one faced by well-intentioned but overwhelmed congregations and outreach services. To address the problem from the ground up, the ground is the place to start. Enter the Cost of Poverty Experience, the product of a partnership between the CareSource Foundation and Think Tank. During these poverty simulations, participants are given real-life roles with real-life challenges and real-life consequences. They visit stations representing a variety of community services and attempt to complete one month’s worth of responsibilities: paying bills, taking children to school, going to work, buying groceries, budgeting for medication and deciding when something will have to wait. They do so as a family living in poverty, stretching their resources to fulfill needs one week at a time.

Throughout the scenario, they gain an in-depth understanding of life under poverty’s circumstances in the rural areas, enviroments which struggle with limited resources. In my small town, that includes a volunteer-operated, county food pantry that distributed over 15,000 boxes of food in 2014 while being open only one day per week.

When the 2012 United Methodist General Conference offered C.O.P.E. to its attendees, church leaders, advocates, organizers and ministers left with a deeper level of understanding of and compassion for their neighbors, relatives, coworkers, parishioners, students, patients and friends living full-time in scarcity and need. “By putting myself in the shoes of those who live daily in poverty, barely able to stay afloat, I was able to feel a whisper of their pain,” said Jessica Conner, editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate newspaper. “The experience transformed me. It’s one thing to serve low-income families, as I do in my local church. It’s quite another to serve with a deeper, more personal understanding of their journey.”

While C.O.P.E is one avenue of moving the church out of the pews and into communities, it doesn’t take a poverty simulation to learn someone else’s story. It does, however, take a willingness to listen. It also takes a willingness to understand that every sect of poverty comes with its own unique challenges. As I heard a pastor friend recently remark in a meeting, “Out in Raleigh, they think we just need to put all of our jobs on the internet.” We all laughed because there was little else to do with a remark so disconnected from the reality of rural life.

Internet service isn’t a given or a priority for everyone.

I have the luxury of Wi-Fi, but if I were living in some other apartment complex (of which there are few) or housing development (of which there are some), that expense would not be included with my rent. In my current living situation, which is on the lower end of monthly cost for a one bedroom/one bath, it’s not an extra bill. That matters.

I also have job security and safety nets of family members. I am one of the lucky ones who can face one month of that unspoken yet familiar panic. With my salary for one just above the 2015 federal poverty guidelines for a family of four in the lower 48 states and a bit closer to a family of three in Alaska and Hawaii, I live with advantages unavailable to many of the families served through my place of employment. That’s a hard to truth to reconcile, especially when I’m a paycheck-to-paycheck kind of adult.

Besides, next month might be better.  

I’ll figure that out when I get there. 

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