War on Poverty: 50 years
The living room in the apartment 24-year-old Jennifer Harbert shares with her young daughter is a small space, with nowhere to sit except a single chair.
There’s no budget for new furniture for this single mother, who is one of nearly a quarter of Marietta residents who live below the poverty line.
Though she works and receives assistance, worry about money never ends, even on the most joyous days.
“Christmastime is always rough, but I always make sure (4-year-old daughter Adrienne) has something under the tree for that special day,” Harbert said. “She’s always had something…and I try to teach her that it’s not all about getting presents.”
Harbert is employed, but relies on things like food stamps, Medicaid, Section 8 housing assistance and PIPP, a program that helps pay monthly utilities based on the person’s income.
Despite the need for help, Harbert said she has a strong work ethic that keeps poverty from defining her.
“I used to avoid things like assistance, and at first I was ashamed. But I don’t sit around, I have a job, and I work for it, and I know it’ll get better,” she said.
Harbert isn’t alone, as many families in the Mid-Ohio Valley region are no exception to the struggle with poverty. Some families, like Harbert’s, are working every day to climb out.
In Marietta, a reported 23.8 percent of the city’s 14,000-plus residents live below the federal poverty level, according to census numbers.
Harbert and her daughter Adrienne live in Colonial Terrace, a Section 8 equal-housing community in Marietta that they live in at an adjusted rate based on her income. After raising Adrienne at her mother’s home until age 2, Harbert went through the process of searching and applying through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which creates Section 8 communities for families and individuals in need.
Last inspected in 2009, Colonial Terrace was rated as “well below average” by HUD when compared to set conditions standards. Regardless of these kinds of conditions, Harbert has developed a routine and drive to make sure that her daughter is safe and taken care of.
She works part-time at the Marietta Family YMCA as a child care provider, now in her fourth year. The job not only helps foster her will to obtain a degree with child care and nursing qualifications, but also means her daughter has a place to be taken care of before she attends pre-school in the afternoons.
“I am a single parent, so that’s usually what can be most difficult,” Harbert said. “Her dad is around, but he isn’t very much financial help, so that makes things difficult.”
Despite those concerns, Harbert said, she was raised to try to support herself.
“She’s self-supportive, and she only asks for help if she really needs it,” said Julia Hughes, Jennifer’s mother, also of Marietta. “She doesn’t like to pout, she gets what she needs for her daughter and for her home.”
A family living paycheck to paycheck was something Harbert witnessed firsthand as a child.
Harbert’s parents divorced when she was just 5 years old.
“I had to uproot her from what she was comfortable with, from a 3,200-square-foot home to a 700-square-foot home,” Hughes said, noting that Harbert had always been good at making tough transitions.
With a roughly $1,100 per month income and stuck with a mortgage when Jennifer was growing up, Hughes said she drove it into her daughter never to “count your chickens early,” and said that through everything, her daughter does what most mothers do, putting herself last in the interest of Adrienne.
“Because of her age she’s really not aware of (money) problems,” Harbert said of her daughter. “Just ’cause she’s four, I try not to let her worry about it and I don’t talk to her about it.”
It takes a lot of organization to keep the worry at bay.
Herbert said including all of the assistance she receives, she pays about $500 per month to go toward various expenses those programs don’t cover, so paychecks have to be budgeted in just the right way.
“I get paid twice a month, which makes it a bit harder to finance everything and make sure there’s money there when the bills come,” she said.
Like many who fall below the middle class, she fears one emergency-such as her car breaking down-could cause all her careful planning to go up in smoke.
Harbert uses food stamps, which provides her with about $200 per month, which she says she must use wisely to make them last. That often means eating a bit less to save the rest for her daughter and not choosing the brand names foods they may want.
The same is true for other spending choices as well.
“We shop at Goodwill a lot, and I am not ashamed of it,” Harbert said. “We use hand-me-downs and when she grows out of clothes I try to help someone else out by giving those to them, pass it on down.”
She also utilizes WIC benefits and receives Medicaid to make sure Adrienne has health care.
When Harbert learned she was pregnant, she was attending college at Washington State Community College. But with a child on the way, there was no longer money she could budget for education.
Since then much of her life has been about sacrifice, said her mother.
“She has been having knee problems, but she felt guilty at the idea of even taking one day off, knowing she wouldn’t get paid,” Hughes said.
A doctor recommended that Harbert buy a nice pair of shoes so she could be healthier on her feet all day, but her daughter hated the idea of doing even that much for her own benefit, she said.
It is also becomes a win-lose situation, Hughes said, when it comes to the possibility of an income increase.
“She is afraid that she gets any sort of pay increase, she’ll be kicked off certain benefits,” Hughes said, explaining that while a pay increase is always a positive thing, strict requirements leave people left behind when their income is low but still too high to receive certain assistance.
For now, despite her situation, Harbert said she is optimistic about her and her daughter’s future. She is now trying to transition into the Washington County Career Center’s adult programs to receive nursing certifications.
While worries persist, the shame she initially felt at her financial situation has faded, she said.
“There are a lot of people who are ashamed of being like this, but I’m not,” Harbert said. “I work for all the assistance I receive, so I don’t think I should feel bad about it.”