Below the line

Many families in Chautauqua County are living below the poverty line. In the county, 13 percent of families are living in poverty which has the third highest rate for poverty for children younger than 18 years of age. With such an alarming rate of poverty in the area, the Social Action Ministry on Economic Justice from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Northern Chautauqua held a panel presentation to educate the community on living below the poverty line.

Living Below the Line: Poverty in our Neighborhoods was held Thursday evening and featured representatives from Chautauqua County Rural Ministry, Chautauqua Opportunities, Inc. and the Department of Social Services. Christine Schuyler, commissioner for health and human services for the county, said recently the Social Services and the Department of Health combined into one office to try to improve efficiency.

She spoke how sometimes being raised in poor families can lead to poor life decisions. She spoke of the late 1990s when the county was under a health crisis with HIV and a man was spreading the disease around the county. Nushawn Williams was raised by his grandmother in poverty and he turned to hustling for extra money.

“You take someone … when he was a child, lived in poverty. You start hustling and you start small,” Schuyler said. “That grew into a lifestyle and that lifestyle then contributed to a lot of bad choices.”

Those who need food and other services can turn to the Chautauqua County Rural Ministry. Executive Director of Rural Ministry Kathleen Peterson said Rural Ministry operates 12 different programs to ensure the basic necessities are available to all people.

Peterson explained two of the programs offered by the Friendly Kitchen which serves meals three times a day, and the emergency food pantry which helps families who have fallen on hard times.

Peterson said there are mothers, fathers, grandparents, children and individuals from all lifestyles that utilize services from the Rural Ministry. She also selected 30 case files randomly and shared a bit about those who have used the emergency services. Among those were single mothers with four children, a single female, a single man and a married couple with children with incomes ranging from unemployment to governmental assistance.

“Yes, (poverty) affects us all,” Peterson said.

Executive Director of COI Roberta Keller said that her office not only serves the poor but is also serving the middle class who may have been laid off.

“Now we’re looking at people who have never ever considered themselves poor. They were the middle class until they got laid off and they lived the American dream,” Keller said.

Keller also said in the area there is an aging population that is living on fixed incomes. Many of these people put funds away for retirement but are finding out that savings is not what they thought it would be. COI helps individuals and families who are having hard times by helping them holistically. Keller said COI helps with giving individuals a dream, helping them connect the dots between causes and effects and plan for tomorrow.

“Every step you make that you are stronger will be, in fact, a valid gain that no one can take away from you. It’s yours, you own it and you did it,” Keller said. “We turn around our consumers into goal setters … to believe that they can.”

Society also institutionalizes poverty, according to Keller. Those who are living in poverty are only given enough assistance to sustain a living but not enough to get out of poverty. Children also suffer when extra curricular activities have fee schedules. Some school budgets often get voted down due to families not being able to afford the taxes.

To give an insight into poverty, SUNY Fredonia student Jackie Koroma discussed her plight with poverty after moving from West Africa to New York City. Koroma lived in poverty in West Africa. She said at first, she thought poverty in America was an oxymoron. She had only seen pictures of white picket fences and the American dream lifestyle.

Koroma and her mother lived with her aunt when she first came to New York City but her aunt eventually no longer opened her home to them. Koroma and her mother found a new apartment.

“I remember my first Christmas in America. I was sitting there eating Chinese food with roaches and rats running around,” she said. “I thought to myself ‘If you had told me I had left Africa to come to America for this, I would have thought someone was making fun of me.'”

Koroma’s mother eventually went back to school to become a licensed practical nurse from a home health aide. Her mother always stressed the importance of an education however. Koroma said she is worried though about jobs following graduation.

“People tell me to go to school and when you get out you’ll get a job. I know so many people who have graduated with bachelor’s and master’s (degrees) and they’re working at McDonald’s and Burger King and then the student loans catch up with you,” Koroma said. “I hope we can come together to end poverty.”

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