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Poverty a reality in Norfolk

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Posted: Tuesday, August 13, 2013 9:13 am

Nebraska. Welcome to the good life. Prosperity abounds among the rolling plains of this well-off state.

But amid that prosperity lurks a certain pervasive problem, negatively affecting about 12 percent of the state’s total population. It’s not an issue unique to Nebraska. Nor is it something that can be easily eradicated.

Poverty — defined as the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions — affects hundreds of thousands of Nebraskans. It exists across all regions of the state and certainly right here in Norfolk.

“Poverty is a reality for the community of Norfolk,” said Doug Witte, associate superintendent of student services for Norfolk Public Schools.

About 16.3 percent of Norfolk’s population is estimated to be in poverty, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That amounts to more than 3,700 people.

“I'm not surprised (by the poverty rate), but I'm concerned that it stays as high as it is,” Witte said. “That's something that communities need to rally around and discuss how we are going to address that when it comes to the needs of families who reside within our community.”

Poverty rates vary greatly across Northeast and North Central Nebraska, with Boyd County having the lowest rate at 6.9 percent and Thurston County having the highest rate at 29 percent. Madison County sits in the top third, with a rate of 13.7 percent.

The census bureau measures poverty based on federal poverty income guidelines. For a family of four, that means earning $23,550 or less puts them below the poverty line. For a single individual, the poverty threshold is $11,490.

David Peters, an assistant professor of sociology at Iowa State University in Ames, said several factors can cause poverty rates to differ between counties that seem similar.

“Communities can be similar in their demographics or in their economics,” said Peters, who has conducted research on the poverty rates among different communities. “In the case of most Nebraska counties, they are similar in their demographics.”

Many counties in Nebraska have small populations with low levels of ethnic diversity, Peters said. That means that much of the difference in poverty rates among counties comes from economic differences, such as the population density and the flow of goods and services throughout the community.

Peters said it’s also important to realize that poverty rates can easily be influenced in a county with lower populations.

“With sparsely populated regions with a small base population, it doesn't take much to change the poverty rate,” he said. “Even if a farmer sells a substantial head of cattle or a medium-sized business closes, it can affect the poverty rate and the median income levels. It's one of the challenges when looking at county-level data in Nebraska.”

The effects of living in poverty are extensive. Purchasing basic necessities like groceries, clothing, housing and health care can become a desperate struggle for low-income families and individuals.

Jennifer Clary, a research associate at the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance Social IMPACT Research Center — which is a leading research organization on poverty in the Midwest — said poverty keeps people from reaching their full potential.

“Americans fundamentally value a strong society where every member is thriving,” Clary said. “Poverty keeps people from thriving.”

Clary said financial instability can also lead families and individuals to make rash decisions with negative outcomes.

“Having limited resources, as poor families do, results in limited opportunities and in families making short-term trade-offs with long-term personal and community consequences,” she said.

For example, a mother might forgo medical care she needs for high blood pressure because she has to buy food for her children. Or a family might skip a bill or rent payment to pay for other basic necessities, such as child care, Clary said.

“These trade-offs jeopardize the everyday lives of everyone, not just individual families, because the well-being of the nation depends on the well-being of all of us,” she said.

Nebraska, as a whole, has historically had lower levels of poverty compared to other areas of the United States. Experts attribute this to several factors, including the workforce makeup in the region.

“The upper Midwest is always leading the country in the number of females in the labor force and married couples who are both in the workforce,” said David Drozd, research coordinator at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research. “Dual incomes help pull people above the poverty threshold.”

Over the years, public and political attitudes about poverty and ways to combat the issue have taken on different forms in the shape of nonprofit organizations and federal aid programs.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the dominant public thinking was that poverty was caused by a lack of economic opportunity, mainly a shortage of good-paying jobs, Peters said.

“People didn't view poverty as being caused by individual failings but because of a lack of jobs and economic opportunity,” he said.

Several decades later, more of the public started to believe that poverty is influenced by individual factors as well, such as a lack of education, lack of work ethic or other behavioral or personality quirks, Peters said.

With that change in thinking came a shift in aid programs to more of a skills-based approach with career classes, life skills courses and financial literacy classes being offered to low-income populations.

“Public sentiment changed rather radically during this period,” Peters said. “We started blaming the poor for being poor. This is still the dominant thinking about poverty today.”

Many recent programs aimed at combating poverty have focused on providing aid and extra help to poor children, something that Peters says is the most effective way to deal with the issue.

“It's important to make sure these poor children are being offered the services they need,” he said. “That's really the biggest payoff for public investment when it comes to combating poverty. That it's early enough where you can hopefully change their path and help them break out of the cycle that they've been born into.”

* * *

Coming tomorrow: Madison County has a surprisingly high poverty rate among women.

© 2015 The Norfolk Daily News . All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • Enough posted at 9:58 am on Tue, Aug 13, 2013.

    Enough Posts: 26

    "The census bureau measures poverty based on federal poverty income guidelines. For a family of four, that means earning $23,550 or less puts them below the poverty line. For a single individual, the poverty threshold is $11,490." I would like a clarification on where exactly this data comes from. A living wage, or minimum required wage for a single individual in Madison County is about $16,000. For a family of four, it's $35,000. What percentage of Norfolk lives in poverty again? Try over 30%.

  • Enough posted at 10:26 am on Tue, Aug 13, 2013.

    Enough Posts: 26

    I also must comment on the author's description of Nebraska as being a well-off state. Nebraska is not 'well-off'. A well-off state can afford to fund necessary highway projects, school renovations, sufficient mental health services, social services, and to keep rest stops open. Examples of well-off states include Colorado and Wyoming. I love Norfolk, and I love many of the people in Norfolk. But in my opinion, too many in Norfolk have alcohol problems, and the more well to do shrug off the mistreatment and poverty of children as not their problem. It's everyone's problem. It'd be nice to see more programs to mentor and encourage youth who don't have it very good at home. All it would take is some programs to give kids more ownership in Norfolk, and the private sector needs to take charge of it. More town clean-up events would encourage less litter. It might even encourage people to keep their own homes cleaner. Even teaching kids how to garden and cook for themselves would go a long ways towards getting them on the right track. I'm sure many kids don't have the confidence that they can truly take control over their lives, because they don't have an example of how to do that at home.

  • Hollie979 posted at 12:24 pm on Tue, Aug 13, 2013.

    Hollie979 Posts: 2

    Being a single mom it is hard, especially in smaller towns like in the Norfolk area. I know personally that it's hard to ask for help if you need it. Utility companies don't care what your situation is when it comes to bills being past due. As a full time college student I only work full time during the summer and weekends during the school year...and I "make too much" to qualify for most state aid programs, yet don't make enough to pay rent and utilities most of the time. I pay child support and have a garnishment coming out of my paycheck for medical bills I couldn't afford to pay in the first place. Yet, none of that matters because they look at the gross income, not the net. I forgo a lot of medical care I need because my son needs new clothes, food on the table, etc. Once I'm done with school I hope to never have to apply for state assistance again. I'll be thrilled to be financially stable on my own. The way the gov't runs this country is bad enough on it's own, I don't want to be a part of "poverty struggle" any more!!

  • Norfolk Native posted at 8:49 am on Wed, Aug 14, 2013.

    Norfolk Native Posts: 49

    I am sympathetic to the position in which Hollie979 finds herself; however, I have to question a couple of things. First, why are you a single mom? Divorced? Unmarried and pregnant? First step is to determine responsibility here. Second, if you have chosen to have a child, under whatever circumstances, your first priority should be a full-time job that pays enough to support you and your child. I see you are "paying child support?" Does this mean you do not have custody of your child? If so, why? IMHO, you should work full-time and continue your schooling part-time. There ARE programs available through Northeast to help you. As for the garnishment, I have found that most places are willing to work with you as long as YOU are willing to acknowledge your responsibility and make an attempt to even pay $10/mo. If it came to the point of a garnishment, it appears you may have not made even that small attempt? Much of this is speculation; my point is that I am sick and tired of people not being responsible for their own actions, then expecting the taxpayer to support those actions. This is exactly what is wrong with this entire country - lack of responsibility and not enough consequences for a person's own poor choices.

  • Justabit Skeptical posted at 9:13 pm on Wed, Aug 14, 2013.

    Justabit Skeptical Posts: 1

    16k for a single person, 35k for a family of four? No way that is needed. Look around and there are 700-800 a month places for a family to rent, way less for a single person. Get ONE older reliable car. DON"T SMOKE OR DRINK. DONT GET CABLE, SMART PHONES, AND HIGH SPEED INTERNET. COOK YOUR OWN FOOD! Follow these simple instructions and you should easily survive.

  • Figment posted at 11:10 pm on Thu, Aug 15, 2013.

    Figment Posts: 41

    Justabit is a really cool first name, but maybe your last name should be Tooquicktojumptoconclusions. I love the assumption that everyone who struggles financially smokes and drinks and ears our all the time. You did, though, forget to mention the obvious crack habit and the paganism that controls her life. I do believe, however, that you're on the right track.


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