For some families, the descent into financial ruin is as sudden and swift as a free-falling elevator.
A baby born prematurely can rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills before coming home from the hospital. Or what had been a reliable paycheck can vanish when the employer who was signing it outsources work to cut costs.
For other families, being broke is just a way of life. Bad luck is like the steady drip of a leaky faucet. Sometimes, it spans generations.
Almost four in 10 Allen County residents are living hard-luck stories. For various reasons their income won't cover basic living costs or allow them to save for a potential life crisis.
Four in 10. If you're sure you don't know any of them, then chances are you don't really know your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends.
The Journal Gazette today launches a series of stories about their struggles and what some local groups are doing to address needs for housing, food and other resources.
The series will include looks at how poverty affects children and new approaches being adopted by organizations and communities.
Families in crisis
Despite eight years of modest economic growth since the depths of the Great Recession, thousands of local families are still suffering.
Studies compiled by the Indiana Association of United Ways and United Way of Allen County have documented financial hardship in the state and county.
The United Way's ALICE project relies on various federal, state and local data to determine how many families are in need. Then, researchers compared their income levels to how much basics cost in the local market to reveal the challenges families face.
ALICE is shorthand for Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained Employed families.
In this series, we'll mostly refer to them as the working poor.
Most of the working poor earn more than the federal poverty level of $11,670 for an individual and $23,850 for a family of four – but less than the ALICE household survival budget of $17,856 for a single adult and $48,096 for two adults, one infant and one preschooler.
The most recent ALICE report, issued in September 2016, showed almost 40 percent of local residents were barely scraping by in 2014.
The following year, a survey found that 63 percent of Americans don't have enough savings to pay for a $1,000 emergency, according to Bankrate.com, a personal finance website. Pew Charitable Trusts found in 2015 that 33 percent of American families have no savings at all.
Local agencies that assist the working poor say not much has changed.
Paula McGee, the Fort Wayne Urban League's interim CEO, said the organization that mentors and advocates for urban residents works each year with about 2,800 clients – a number that's been holding steady.
Historically low unemployment numbers might give the impression that pretty much anyone who wants a job has one. But McGee said that's not true.
For the people her nonprofit serves, the lack of employment opportunity remains a major issue. She noted the overall jobless rate for Allen County is one number, but the rate on Fort Wayne's southeast side is significantly higher. And even that statistic doesn't include those who are so discouraged they've given up and left the labor force, she said.
Although the local BUILD program is successfully preparing people for jobs in the skilled trades, not everyone is cut out for a career as a carpenter, plumber, electrician or bricklayer.
“We also need other training opportunities,” McGee said. “Everybody isn't physically able or it may not be their area where they can excel.”
Lack of reliable transportation prevents some people from applying for job openings too far from home, she said.
If McGee could wave a magic wand, she'd persuade more local employers to provide training to job applicants and opportunities to advance in the organization beyond entry-level positions.
If her clients could find jobs paying livable wages, the community would reap the rewards of lower crime, violence and despair, McGee said.
Finding a good fit
Local resources aren't enough to meet the working poor's current needs, said Tiffany Bailey, vice president of community impact for the local United Way. That's despite having 212 agencies – offering almost 3,000 services – listed in its database.
One reason: Not all sources of assistance are a good fit for everyone who needs help.
Some agencies enforce maximum income limits that a family might not meet, Bailey said. And others require various forms of documentation that a family might not be able to provide.
Other challenges are logistical, she said. Some food pantries open only one day a week and serve only those living within a certain geographic area. Some high-quality daycare centers have a waiting list and those willing to enroll new students might be too far away from a family without reliable transportation.
Some 60 percent of Indiana preschoolers aren't enrolled in accredited programs that could prepare them for kindergarten, according to the 2017 Kids Count data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Education experts point to kindergarten readiness as one of the most significant predictors of a student's future success.
That's why Bailey encourages families needing help to contact United Way's 211 help line.
The call center is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week with community navigators trained to match callers with appropriate sources of assistance. It saves everyone's time when people schedule appointments with the right agencies and arrive with the required paperwork, she said.
In the fiscal year ended June 30, the call center directed nearly 45,000 callers from a 19-county area to available resources. The average call is about seven minutes.
Callers often don't know the breadth of local resources available, including job skills training, household budget guidance, mental health assistance and more.
That's why United Way 211 community navigators are trained to ask polite but probing questions.
“It's trying to dig a little deeper about what's going on,” Bailey said, adding that callers often need help prioritizing numerous needs.
An elderly couple contacted the local call center a few years ago for help with a utility bill, for example. The community navigator provided information about the Salvation Army's city utility relief funds.
Something else seemed to be going on, so the United Way staff member didn't stop with addressing that immediate problem.
More conversation revealed that the elderly couple's water bill was unusually high because of a leaky faucet.
United Way posted the project on Neighborlink, a local nonprofit that lists projects on its website, and a volunteer fixed it.
It also turned out the couple was skipping one meal a day to lower grocery costs and cutting medication in half to make prescriptions last longer.
United Way staff pointed the couple to a local food bank and an organization that helps with prescription drug costs, according to Jaimie Ferren, director of 211 services.
“In a follow-up call a couple of weeks later, the woman's tone had changed. There was a sense of relief on the other end of the line,” she said.
It turned out that the caller had retired from a well-known, Fort Wayne company and had donated to United Way throughout her career.
“She never dreamed,” Ferren said, “that she would be the one in need.”
At a glance
United Way 211 operators match individuals and families in need with hundreds of organizations that offer assistance. Because there are too many to list, below are broad categories of help available. The best match might depend on location, days of operation, income level or other factors. The 211 staff is trained to shift through those details.
• Child care assistance/referrals
• Community navigation
• Public benefits/assistance
• Financial assistance
• Financial literacy
• Food pantries
• Health clinics
• Health insurance
• Language translation
• Legal assistance
• Mental health
• Physical, emotional and sexual abuse
• Prescription assistance
• School supplies
• Senior services
• Tax preparation
• Utility assistance