Dave Scott

Fred Fach spent his career learning the restaurant business. Shirley Branch honed her skills as a factory worker. Judith Brooks worked in the medical industry before going back to school to earn a master’s degree in human resources.


They were too busy working to learn how to be needy.


Now they are jobless and facing bills they can’t pay.


That puts them among the millions of people raised in the working class who now find themselves fighting poverty without a clue how to get help.


They are called “the new poor,” although many who fit that description don’t like the term.


Like others in their situation, they had no idea what kind of help was available, waited too long to ask and found themselves in a confusing world where they didn’t even know the lingo of the poor — a bitter alphabet soup of programs like PIPP, WIC, HEAP, SNAP and others.


The chronically poor ­— people whose families have been in poverty for generations and live in neighborhoods where all their friends live on short funds — usually know all of those terms and how to get the help they need, social workers say. People new to poverty learn it all by themselves, often because they are too proud to ask for help or have no friends who know anything about getting by on little or no income.


Recent census data show 29 percent of Akron’s residents fit federal poverty standards. Counting the new poor is more difficult. Nationally, 51 million people earn between 100 and 150 percent of poverty levels, meaning they are only one bad break from poverty. Those figures don’t count jobless middle-class families that don’t qualify for assistance but are rapidly depleting their wealth and are making tough choices between paying the rent, keeping up the car they need to qualify for a job or putting food on the table.


A little hope


The new poor have an advantage: literacy.


Hannah Nitz, of the Akron-based ministry OPEN M, says the way a poor person talks is a key factor in the way he or she is judged, just as people in past generations were judged by the way they dressed.


“The new poor have that kind of middle-class language,” she said. “They know how to speak like they would in a job interview, the right words and that sort of things. I would like to say that it’s not true that professionals deal just as easily with people from generational poverty as they do with situational poverty, that there’s no bias, but there definitely is. It’s easier to talk to someone who talks like you, and that does not necessarily mean anything with a race or dialect, but just something like the terms you are using.”


So they might be able to talk their way into a job, but for now, dealing with poverty is foreign to them.


Stephanie Carothers, deputy director of family and adult services for Summit County, said: “The chronically poor who have grown up in the system know the ins and outs of it. … I don’t want to say it’s not difficult, because I think it always absolutely is difficult, but I think it’s more so for the newer poor who are not used to coming in and dealing with it.”


They are quick to express humility.


“We get a lot of people who will say, ‘I never wanted to be on assistance. I hate to call in,’?” said Amelia Bartosch, case manager for Summit County Job and Family Services.


“Part of the problem is that people wait until they have exhausted all of their resources before they call us, and they call us when it’s an emergency situation. A lot of times we can’t give them something that day. If they come in that morning, it’s seven to 10 days before the food assistance starts.”


Painful choices


In other cases, the new poor are surprised to learn they are required to use up all of their resources before they are eligible for public assistance. That can include selling off 401(k) money, trust funds, houses, cars and retirement savings.


Judith Brooks has been out of a job since last summer, but she wants no part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which used to be called “food stamps.”


“I’ve never had to do that. I probably won’t do it,” she said. “I’ve heard you are not allowed to have a new car; if you have a newer car, it’s an automatic turndown. … If you live in a nice house, it’s an automatic turndown.”


Nitz, of OPEN M, says even learning that kind of information can be a puzzle for the new poor.


“I’ll get calls from people, and I’ll say, ‘Have you called Info Line?’ and they will say, ‘What’s that?’ And then I know they are not from poverty,” Nitz said. “This is a new poor.”


Info Line is a telephone service reached by dialing 211 or 330-376-6660 in Summit County. It can guide the needy to about 6,000 public and private programs.


“People are going to call us 24 hours a day, particularly if they are the new poor, people who are not familiar with this system,” said Sue Pierson, vice president of Info Line Inc. “They don’t know what to ask for. All they know is they don’t have enough check left at the end of the month, and they might call us and not even know how to say what’s going on. They don’t really know what is available, have no clue about what they might be entitled to get.”


Waiting too long


Operating the Info Line phones can be a tough job.


“They get yelled at constantly and they are called horrible things, and they understand that that’s just where people are,” Pierson said. “One of things we always say is, ‘We wish you had called us first instead of last.’ A lot of times we are the last call people have made because, you know what, we are all Americans and we’re independent and we want to make our own choices.”


People are delayed by pride.


“A lot of times it is too late because we all pretty much figure out we know how to figure out what is going on in our lives and you don’t want to ask for help. You are supposed to be able to figure it out yourself,” Pierson said.


Sometimes, Info Line workers have to sell callers on the benefits they offer.


Info Line’s Tanya Kahl said she tells callers that “even if they have never had to use these benefits before, they were paying taxes and these benefits are there for them now that they need them. … [When] they are able to get back on their feet, they’ll be able to support them with their taxes again.”


Linda Higgins, supervisor of Info Line’s Lifeline program, told of a woman from an affluent Akron suburb who had lost her job and couldn’t afford to keep her child in an expensive, private day-care facility. She didn’t want to take her child to Head Start programs because she didn’t want to enter the city and she didn’t want to use private homes because she didn’t trust them.


“She was reaching the point where she was teetering,” Higgins said.


Higgins told her about Child Care Connection, which provides the names of five private-home sitters in her ZIP code and lets her do whatever in-home inspections and interviews she desires.


Personal responsibility


Info Line makes a point of being nonjudgmental in trying to help people, but Pierson said every social worker knows personal responsibility is often a factor.


“That’s always a part of it, and that’s a hard one when you are in the human services,” Pierson said. “I guess the easiest way to say it is if you have never been there, it is easy to point to an individual and say it is the individual’s problem.”


Fach quit his job because he was suffering from uncontrolled diabetes and is having trouble finding new work because he has a drunken-driving conviction.


He was asked how much he feels responsible for his situation.


“About 90 percent, because I didn’t take care of my health,” he said.


“I’ve always been heavy and I blame myself. When I got my OVI, people said, ‘Get a lawyer. You could probably fight it because I did a blood test.’ … I went to court and I didn’t have a lawyer. And the judge said, ‘How do you plead?’ I said, ‘No contest.’ He said, ‘You’re not going to get a lawyer?’ I said, ‘I knew what I did was wrong.’?”


Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or davescott@thebeaconjournal.com.