Poverty a way of life locally
When an ad hoc consortium on poverty meets in Shamokin this week, its members will do so with people like Marie in mind.
Marie, a pseudonym she requested to protect her identity, is a 38-year-old widow, a cancer patient and a mother of four. She lives on Mount Carmel's east side, subsisting largely on $1,000 monthly in government and life insurance benefits.
That figure is bolstered by benefits received by her two minor high-school aged children - about $600 combined monthly also used for household expenses. A third child turns 18 in days. They're hopeful her benefits will end no earlier than June, as promised. The fourth is just out of high school and has a part-time job in retail. She's saving for a vehicle to drive to a technical school, which she is also paying for herself. Her benefits have ended.
"My money goes for bills. My son's money helps for the house. My other daughter, her money helps with the bills."
"The 18-year-old, her money has to take care of her now, so I won't get that anymore. My oldest daughter, her money takes care of her," Marie said, later adding that her eldest daughters pitch in what they can to help out.
The family hovers around the $27,570 poverty line for a single-parent family of five. An MIT study suggests a single-parent family of four in Northumberland County must earn $55,919 before taxes to meet basic living expenses. A figure for a family of five wasn't available.
No food stamps
Marie said they don't receive food stamps. Her washing machine is broken, so are three windows at her home, and her bathtub leaks. She struggles to pay the mortgage and utility bills, let alone make improvements to her home. Cable and Internet are out of the question. Disability covers her medication and chemotherapy, but she said it won't pay for a more expensive medication her doctors recommend.
The first day of school is fast approaching, but there's no money yet to buy new clothes or school supplies. Marie will scramble next month to get her children the basics. When birthdays or holidays arrive, she decides between paying bills or buying presents. There's help from church groups, non-profits and government agencies, but Marie said she'd rather provide gifts herself.
Feeling like she's on borrowed time, Marie said she spends next to nothing on herself. She's trying to put away what she can in savings for her children. On her income, savings deposits are rare.
"God knows how long I have," she said, reminded of her 2009 cancer diagnosis.
For Gale Zalar, of Central Susquehanna Opportunities (CSO), stories like Marie's are becoming increasingly familiar.
"Our food banks don't have plenty of food, we don't have plenty of clothing (to provide)," Zalar said. "People don't realize the extent of poverty in our area."
Local area below county, state national averages
According to Census figures and other government data, poverty trends for Northumberland County largely mirror state and national averages. A closer look at pockets in the county's eastern end tell a different story - the Shamokin and Mount Carmel areas fare worse.
For the county as a whole, the median household income is $40,693, about $12,000 below state and national averages. More than 13 percent of households live in poverty, a figure that jumps above 22 percent for children - both in line with the state and nation.
In Shamokin and Coal Township, though, the median household income is a combined $32,779. More than 18 percent of households live in poverty. The rate for children dips to 17 percent, however. Shamkin's figures alone are $30,291, 21 percent and 16 percent respectively.
In Mount Carmel and Mount Carmel Township, including Kulpmont, the median household income is $36,772. The household poverty rate tops 15 percent, and the children's rate tops 25 percent. These figures are particularly influenced by Mount Carmel's east side, where Marie lives: $24,770, 19 percent and 34 percent.
The figures of two other communities in the county are just as troubling. In Milton, the median household income is $34,775, the household poverty rate is 19 percent and the child poverty rate is an alarming 50 percent. Sunbury's averages are $26,844, 23 percent and 31 percent.
Zalar said the lines at area food banks are indicative of the crisis. Marie turns to food banks, too.
"We're OK at the beginning of the month, but towards the end we struggle. But we make it," Marie said.
Representatives from about 20 different groups, including state and county agencies and local non-profits, will meet Wednesday at the Northumberland County Career and Arts Center to discuss streamlining services for people like Marie.
Zalar cautions people from stereotyping everyone who receives government benefits and donations from non-profits.
"You don't know why they're in line at a food bank. You don't know what happened to them," Zalar said.