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Work Harder, Stay Poor

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“If you just worked harder, you wouldn’t be poor.”

That’s a message Donna Beegle hears a lot, and it infuriates her.

Ms. Beegle is considered one of the nation’s foremost experts on poverty, and she was in Traverse City last month to speak about the issue. After her address at the 2010 Opportunity Conference, which you can view in its entirety below, she told me the “just work harder” message makes an erroneous assumption about the vast majority of the American poor: that most don’t work.

In fact, in America, the vast majority of people who meet the federal poverty standards are employed, but they still don’t make enough money to pay their bills for health care, housing, transportation, food, electricity, and other bills. The fact that those in poverty are often employed makes poverty seem like an invisible, distant problem to most, Ms. Beegle said.

“We really don’t even acknowledge it (poverty) exists,” she said. “Poverty is the silent diversity issue. …if you talk to people, they really don’t see the poverty. If they do, they don’t understand it.”

The Michigan Land Use Institute is now working to highlight the problem in northwest Lower Michigan. Staff hope that the Grand Vision, the six-county, regional, citizen-based planning project that is now in its “implementation” phase, will point new development—particularly workforce housing and public transportation—in directions that increase local prosperity and help poorer families cut their housing and transportation costs, which make it hard for them to get ahead.

Ms. Beegle was the keynote speaker recently at the conference, a day of mentoring and education for those in the Grand Traverse region who are struggling to pay their bills and feed their kids. In Grand Traverse, it is estimated that approximately 9 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line. That number climbs even higher in surrounding rural counties.

Even more concerning is this fact: Non-profits in the region that offer financial and food assistance to the poor are reporting 25 percent increases in requests for their help since the economic downturn struck in 2008.

“The thing that stands out the most are the new faces-people who would have never imagined being in this situation, and now they are,” said one Salvation Army worker in Cadillac.

The Opportunity Conference, put on by the Traverse Bay Poverty Reduction Initiative (PRI), seeks to change that by offering counseling and education for those in need.

Ms. Beegle’s message to the 200-plus people seeking help at the conference was, personally, truly inspiring. Her message encouraged those in attendance to never give up despite what may seem like truly dire financial circumstances. Most importantly, she said, those struggling with bills need to accept the help of others.

In Grand Traverse County, this often comes in the form of PRI-sponsored “mentors”-people in the community who can give others guidance to others on how to navigate through the difficult financial mazes of life that often leave people without hope.

For a truly compelling 25 minutes of Beegle’s message, please click here to view her entire address to the conference.

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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