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Gena Bigler: What does poverty look like in Kentucky? The answer might shock you

What does poverty look like? A recent KET documentary, Price of Poverty in Kentucky, took a look at poverty in Kentucky, and the answer to that question is grim.

Children are suffering the most. According to Attica Scott, a Louisville Metro councilwoman, 12,000 Louisville children are homeless. That is a shocking number of children with no bed of their own, no dining room table to do homework on, no refrigerator to raid when they are hungry, no shelf for books to read, no safe place to rest.

Michelle Tooley, a professor at Berea College, points out, “Being in poverty is hard work.” It is also expensive. The Brookings Institution report, The High Price of Poverty in Kentucky, shows how low-income families are forced to spend more on basic needs. Besides facing the very real struggle to survive, low-income families are also facing disproportionate fees. The study shows that those who earn less than $20,000 per year are paying more for home and auto insurance, auto loans and home loans. Even furniture and groceries cost more when you are poor.

The simple act of paying a bill can be complicated when you are poor. A checking account is out of reach for many. Bank fees and the risk of bouncing a check can mean the difference between making it and not making it. Without a checking account, to pay a bill you must find and pay for transportation to a bank or grocer who sells cashier’s checks. Then you pay for the check to pay your bill. Paying one bill can take most of a day.

At a Super Pantry (a learning group for low–income families) years ago, a financial planner was talking about how to save money by cutting back on luxuries. One of the women listening laughed and said, “Honey, deodorant is a luxury, you sure you want me to cut back on that?” What he considered poverty and her reality were very different things. Many of us can’t grasp not having one single dollar to spare.

Poverty is not not being able to afford the cable sports package; it is not being able to afford to feed your family. Poverty is choosing which utility bill to pay. Poverty is having no money for impulse buys such as on a candy bar at the checkout line. Poverty is telling your children no to the field trip you can’t afford. Poverty is worrying about money every single day.

A surprising number of middle class families are only two to three paychecks from poverty. Because of the recent economic decline, many families have fallen on hard times. Families that had grown accustomed to a comfortable suburban life are struggling to adjust to apartment living. Families that have always had a comfortable grocery budget find themselves visiting food banks to make ends meet. Nearly one in three families wouldn’t be able to afford their home for one more month if they lost their job. Many families are one financial crisis from poverty.

While poverty is a national problem, Kentuckians are earning about $10,000 less than the national average annual income. Kentucky families are starting out behind. Families with children are forced to choose between food and heat. The elderly are choosing between needed medicine and food.

Children living in poverty are suffering from obesity and malnutrition at the same time. Children are getting calories but not nutrition. Inexpensive foods are full of empty calories that do nothing to nourish young bodies and brains.

Poverty looks like a tired, overweight, hungry child. That hungry, overweight child is expected to concentrate at school while suffering belly rumbles from hunger. That child is supposed to finish homework often when there is no home.

Poverty looks like pain.

For more information about KET, click here.

For more information about the Brookings Institution’s report The High Price of Poverty in Kentucky, click here.

Gena Bigler is passionate about public service and credits her time serving nonprofits in AmeriCorps and Volunteers in Service to America (V.I.S.T.A.) with teaching her extreme budgeting and bargain shopping. Gena is now CFO of McNay Settlement Group and serves on the board of the Lactation Improvement Network of Kentucky (L.I.N.K.). Gena would be happy to hear from you at lgbigler@gmail.com.


Click here to read more columns from Gena Bigler.

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