Reflections on poverty's causes and cures -- from the poor

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The women in the Sojourner House MOMS program in East Liberty are near the bottom of America's economic ladder.

So when it comes to the issue of whether there are some poor people who deserve government help and some who don't, they not only speak from experience -- their answers may surprise you.

"I really believe it's a person's choice where they want to go in life," says Sharon Taylor, an African-American 38-year-old mother of four who is going to school and working part-time at Target.

"I'm not going to be the one who will sit here and say my ancestors picked cotton -- I don't know if they picked cotton, and I'm not about to blame anything on that race stuff. I believe it's so important to take race out of the picture, and just look at the people as they are, because when you can do that, there is less blaming. You have to look at yourself and what are your morals and values and are you going to stand by them."

At the same time, Ms. Taylor would like people to understand what a struggle it is to wean yourself off of welfare. It wasn't until she was working 30 hours a week at Target that she earned enough money to replace the $500 a month she had been getting in welfare assistance.

And if she weren't still eligible for food stamps and medical assistance, she doesn't know how she could take care of her children, a 15-year-old, a 13-year-old and 7-year-old twins.

Najeena Walker, 38, has had a similar experience. A union carpenter, she can make decent money when she is working, but never knows when she'll be laid off, as she was in early February.

Ms. Walker estimates she earned just $18,000 last year, her first as a union apprentice. So food stamps and medical assistance for her family are vital, because "when I work, it's good; but when I don't work, my unemployment is not even a fraction of what I made each week."

Because poor single mothers often live so close to the bone, she said, it's important for affluent Americans to realize that most of them are not in a position to spend money frivolously.

"They'll say we're abusing the system, and we're working under the table and using the government to get free money.

"Well, first of all, I don't know how anybody thinks you can live on $404 a month [in welfare assistance] and pay bills and buy shoes, socks and clothes for your kids. We're not out there buying [Air] Jordans every week.

"We shop at Goodwill, at thrift stores, we get donations and appreciate donations. We know how to live within our means. It's almost shameful that people would think we would take a whole check and spend it on a pair of sneakers. It's heartbreaking sometimes."

Mia Marshman, 33, another Sojourner MOMS resident, said welfare can truly be a safety net when you've made a major mistake and you're trying to start over.

Ms. Marshman was sentenced to two years in prison after her oldest son died in a house fire that began after she drank heavily and fell asleep.

As a convicted felon, she said, she has been banned from qualifying for subsidized Section 8 housing, and so the nonprofit Sojourner program has been a lifeline for her and her surviving children, who are 6 and 4.

She said the Sojourner program also provides structure and good daily habits that too many poor women lack.

"We have to go to meetings, we have to do chores, we have to get our kids to the school bus each morning. I know that sounds like a simple thing to do, but trust me, a lot of people weren't doing that before.

"I know in the past I would lie in bed and say, 'Nobody going to school today,' but now I feel weird if I get up in the morning and don't get my kids off to school or go to a meeting."

Veronica Spataro, 26, another Sojourner MOMS resident, has seen poverty from both sides.

She grew up middle class, and for three years in the mid-2000s, she and her husband owned their own home, ran a successful roofing business, owned four vehicles and had $32,000 in the bank.

Then, they began abusing heroin and their lives unraveled.

Today, she has been drug free for eight months, is going to outpatient treatment and hopes to return to school at the University of Pittsburgh to earn a bachelor's degree.

With her husband in jail, Ms. Spataro relies on welfare, food stamps and medical assistance to try to climb back to self-sufficiency for herself and her two young children.

Like the other women, she knows that some welfare recipients abuse the system.

"You go into the welfare office and you can see people who have all this great stuff on and you think, 'Clearly you're selling drugs and getting welfare,' so I understand some people's resentment.

"But I've also seen many women who are clean and are receiving aid and they're benefiting from it and they're going to school and able to feed their children, and it contributes to this idea that they can do this without having to rely on a man. It feels really good to be able to use the help, get yourself together, and then you move on."

For Ms. Walker, it boils down to self-respect and passion.

"I think if we figure out who we are and what we have to offer, that we might not get paid the substantial amount we'd like, but we can fill that void in ourselves, and we will be paid plentifully.

"And unfortunately, I think a lot of people who are poverty-stricken have yet to see that.

"As for me -- I'm a diamond in the rough, and this is just a journey, and I'm going to enjoy the journey because I know that at the end, I'm going to be well taken care of."


Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1130.


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