Going back to school for job training. Finding a full-time career path. Purchasing a home. These things can seem like discouragingly distant dreams for the 46.5 million people living below the poverty level in America.
That is how they seemed to Jessie Thompson, 48, when she moved from her home in Fairmont W.Va. to Marietta 20 years ago-trading in one fast food job for another in the process.
"I don't know whether I ever thought I'd be able to buy a house," said Thompson, thinking back to her days working at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
ROBB DeCAMP Special to the Times
Jessie Thompson stands in front of her Marietta home on Thursday. Thompson worked multiple jobs to get out of poverty and eventually buy the home.
But she did. After going back to school and landing a full-time job as a home health aide, Thompson purchased her own home in 2001.
The road to financial security had many challenges, but Thompson has always been determined. A single mother who was herself raised by a single mother, she worked multiple part-time jobs for much of her life.
With her son as her motivation, Thompson worked hard and made smart use of available assistance programs to improve her situation.
Thompson gives those programs-particularly the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Family Self-Sufficiency Program and a local job training and placement program-a lot of credit for how far she has come.
In the mid-1990s, with a 2-year-old son at home, Thompson took advantage of a program through Washington-Morgan Community Action that enabled her to enroll in home health aide classes at the Washington County Career Center.
"Before I had my son, I wasn't sure I could do the program. After you have a child you're going to do everything you can to make sure they have the security of a home, the security of utilities," she said.
What was particularly helpful about the program was the job placement component. It temporarily placed Thompson in a home health aide position after her training, enabling her to get her foot in the door.
Job training continues to be an important piece of what Washington-Morgan Community Action does, said director David Brightbill.
"We still purchase training for a variety of jobs, primarily in the medical field and truck drivers. Those are two occupations in this area that both pay reasonably well and there's a demand for the jobs," he said.
However, the organization no longer offers the home health aide training, he said.
"It was and continues to be a good idea, but there is just no funding anymore," said Brightbill.
The organization had covered the cost of training and had paid to temporarily employ the participants, he said.
Before securing a full-time job as a homemaker aide, Thompson cobbled together three jobs in her field in order to work the equivalent of one full-time job.
Scheduling around the three jobs, Thompson was able to spend some time with her son growing up, but never as much as she wanted.
Finding ways to save money while raising a child is also a challenge, she said.
Certain good and services that were not necessities got cut out of the equation.
"I never bought paper towels because I figured we could use dish towels and wash them," she said.
She and her son rarely ate out or purchased pre-prepared meals, and she never had cable, said Thompson.
"When I first had my son, someone told me 'You have to get cable so you have a way to entertain him,'" she recalled.
But cable was not a priority, and Thompson did just fine without it.
Finding day care for her son was another big challenge.
"One of the most difficult things for any parent is going to be child care. Weekends and evenings, it's even harder to find a trustworthy person to leave your child with," she said.
A day care assistance program enabled Thompson to pay a portion of the cost of weekly day care.
"There are so many programs if you're aware of all of them. I believe without these programs you'd have four times the homelessness," said Thompson.
When Thompson talks of programs that helped her, it is HUD's Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program that she brings up first.
The program is an option for those using HUD's Housing Choice Voucher (HCV)program. When an HCV participant's income goes up, so does the portion of rent that participant pays, explained Brightbill.
The FSS program rewards people for goal setting, by setting those increased payments into an escrow account, which is given to the participant if they complete their goals in five years, said Brightbill.
"You sit down and say 'Here's my plan for being off of assistance in five years,'" he said. "Once they've completed those goals they are eligible to receive that escrow account."
Thompson used her escrow account to put 20 percent down on her house.
"I think a lot of people are afraid of the program...You didn't get to see that money (for five years)," she said.
The program is a bigger commitment than the regular HCV program, added Brightbill. If participants do not complete their goals, they lose the money in the escrow account, he said.
Of around 340 families using the HCV program in Washington County, around 50 also participate in the FSS program, he estimated.
Making smart use of programs is a crucial tool for people hoping to improve their situation, Thompson said.
"I would tell people to take advantage of the programs you are eligible for, but remember you're not the only one out there using that program," she advised.
Thompson is more secure than ever, and was able to provide many experiences for her son that she never had growing up. But even with all her successes, things can be difficult, she said.
"I think even when you get into the higher income, most people today live paycheck to paycheck. I'm in a better position, but I think most people still have difficult times," she said.