Two friends, Latricia Sweeting and Mary Ratliff, sat together Tuesday in the waiting room of the Carolina Community Actions office. It is the local “War Room” of a war with no end in sight.
The “War on Poverty” was declared by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. The federal government created programs across America – including Carolina Community Actions – to help people find sustainable ways to keep lights on, roofs up and hopes undimmed.
Fifty years later, the war rages on. The working poor are among us, in larger numbers than ever in the richest country in history.
Sweeting and Ratliff – who work cleaning schools, except in late June and July – held utility bills for homes kept up by hard work. They added up to more than $1,000 dollars. They are bills held over since the coldest winter in memory, with an inability to catch up.
The two mothers did not have a thousand dollars between them.
Just last week, Rock Hill officials raised electricity rates for at least the 10th year in a row. They blamed an increase in cost from the Piedmont Municipal Power Agency. Rates are now 30 percent higher than in 2005.
Duke Energy raised its rates by 16 percent over past two years.
But the working poor did not get a 16 percent raise in the past two years – or a 30 percent raise over the past decade.
Tuesday’s high reached past 90 degrees, at least. Today is expected be hotter still, and the humidity will make it feel like it’s 100 degree or more. July and August heat loom like a financial freight train bearing down on the working poor.
Sweeting’s disconnect day was scheduled for today. She and her almost-2-year-old daughter would be without electricity if she did not find $288.99.
“I work, but I just don’t have it,” Sweeting said.
Ratliff has a couple days until the her power is disconnected if she does not find help for her and her children.
Carolina Community Actions is where York County’s struggling people – most of them working poor – come as a last resort before the lights are turned off or the eviction notice is delivered.
“Most of the people we serve just can’t pay all their bills with what income they have,” said Diane Wells, community services liaison for Carolina Community Actions. “At least 70 percent are seniors on fixed incomes. The rest are almost all people who are working but can’t get to the end of the month before the money runs out.
“They literally run out of income before all the bills are paid. These people have to juggle every month.”
Carolina Community Actions provides Housing and Urban Development money to people who qualify under federal poverty guidelines. There is emergency assistance on bills up to $1,000, non-emergency aid for unpaid bills up to $500, and emergency rent or mortgage assistance up to $1,000. Recipients have to be able to document their need with bills, have current valid picture ID and Social Security cards for all household members.
Carolina Community Actions, private charities and other non-profits are often the last barrier between the working poor and despair, Wells said. The mission is simple but daunting: Try to reduce the causes and symptoms of poverty.
In addition to helping people pay their bills, the agency provides early childhood education through Head Start programs, assistance in obtaining a GED or high school diploma, and other education and employment programs designed to boost self-sufficiency.
“We believe in a hand up as well as a hand out, when people need both,” Wells said.
More than 13,000 people in York and four surrounding counties have been served by the agency in the past three years.
Poverty did not end with the end of the recent national economic recession that sent record numbers of people looking for help with utilities, rent, even food.
“We have seen more and more people out here who are so close to homeless they can smell the tree they will be sleeping under,” said the Rev. Ronal King, who runs Christians Feed the Hungry ministry that helps with food and more.
This week, in the brutal heat, King has been asking for donations for electric fans for the poorest elderly and mothers of small children.
“The poor haven’t gone away,” he said. “They are everywhere, and there is more of them. And many of them do work, too.”
The cooling programs survived the federal budget sequestration ax late last year, but the cost of utilities went up, and the working poor hoped for a miracle just days before the greatest country in the history of the world celebrates its independence and greatness.
If the lights are on to watch it.