SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — For 39-year old Juanita Porter, the last few weeks have been a juggling act.
The single mother and grandmother has been struggling to maintain a roof over her family's head, while navigating multiple jobs and seeking justice in what she calls an "unfair system."
"This is real life," she said. "I believe in God. I have faith in God. But when you don't know your next move and you have kids to protect — it's hard."
Porter says she found bed bug activity and mold in her Timberland Apartments home, but when she complained it led to an eviction, forcing her to quickly relocate her children and leave behind most of her belongings. She took the apartment complex to court, but lost the case.
"I didn't get evicted for not paying my rent," she said. "I got evicted for refusing to pay for an infestation that was already there."
Porter, a recent graduate from Phoenix University, said the apartment complex exhibited "predatory behavior" because she received housing assistance. The apartment complex declined to comment on the matter.
"People don't understand," Porter said. "They thought that because of my looks and because I'm on Section 8 that there wouldn't be a fight.. . . I was supposed to walk across the stage the day before I got evicted, but I took all of my graduation money and put it into this."
And officials with Step Up Savannah say Porter's story is a common one in the city of Savannah, where about one in four residents live in poverty and are susceptible to under banking, predatory lending and other predatory behavior.
"People take advantage of others because they are desperate," said Alex Kopp of Step Up Savannah.
A look at Savannah
Savannah's most recent rate of 24 percent living in poverty is slightly down from the pre-Recession number of 26 percent. But it's still nearly double the national rate of 12.3 percent and 10 percent higher than the state level of 15 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"Savannah has intergenerational poverty," said Step Up Savannah Executive Director Jen Singeisen. "It's not reflective of the way of the rest of the economy has bounced back . . We see better gains in other areas. If you look at the stock market -- the stock market is at record highs. You see unemployment at historic lows and yet our poverty rate hasn't moved that much."
The percentage of Savannah's population living below the poverty level was almost 27 percent in 2015 — up from almost 22 percent in 2000.
The increase occurred as the city invested $2.7 million in general funds in anti-poverty programs between 2011 and 2016, and another $1.1 million was spent supporting Step Up Savannah's job training and anti-poverty initiatives, and $981,304 went toward various social service agencies.
"It's not just one thing that creates poverty," Singeisen said. "So it's not just one thing that's going to fix it. You have to wrap around those services and resources for individuals. They want to take care of themselves. They want to take care of their families and they want to live with dignity. But there are systems that make it really difficult."
Defining the problem
When a family's income fails to meet a federally established threshold, the family is considered to be living in poverty.
Poverty thresholds are the dollar amounts used to determine poverty status. They're calculated using income numbers such as wage earnings, unemployment, Social Security and other sources. The calculation doesn't include non-cash benefits such as food stamps and housing subsidies.
Typically it is measured with respect to families and not the individual and is adjusted for the number of persons in a family.
But poverty goes beyond income, Singeisen says.
The factors of poverty require a holistic view of basic needs and the identification of a local living wage, she said.
"What we know is that in Savannah an individual with no kids needs to make — working full time — a little over $13 an hour to make a living wage."
In Georgia, the minimum wage is $5.15, compared to the federal wage of $7.25. In cases of states with minimum wage laws, employers are required to pay the higher of the two.
The living wage model is an alternative measure of basic needs. It is a market-based approach that draws upon geographically specific expenditure data related to a family's likely minimum food, childcare, health insurance, housing, transportation, and other basic necessities such as clothing and personal care item costs.
The living wage draws on these cost elements and the rough effects of income and payroll taxes to determine the minimum employment earnings necessary to meet a family's basic needs while also maintaining self-sufficiency.
"The reason why those factors come into play is because if you have small children and both parents are working then your child care goes up," she said. "We know that one of the barriers for individuals living in poverty is child care -- it's so expensive that you start to question are you working just to pay your childcare?"
A need for education
And like with any problem, the first step to solving it is understanding it. Last year, the city of Savannah hosted a summit to take a deeper look at the issue of poverty
The Connect the Dot initiative was launched after the Savannah City Council adopted a strategic plan in 2017 that included poverty reduction as a priority. The goal set by the mayor and aldermen was that by 2021, the poverty rate will be reduced by 1 percent every four years until the rate is at or below the statewide level.
The summit was designed to bring together service providers, government and public institutions, private sector employers, faith-based organizations and community organizations to develop solutions for assisting Savannah's impoverished population.
"Many times because we work in silos we may not realize what someone else is doing," Singeisen said.
Taking education a step further, Step Up Savannah hosted a poverty simulation in May to help explain to the public the other factors in tackling poverty. A poverty simulation is a tool that helps participants rethink the challenges that millions of low-income individuals must face each and every day.
"Managing your financial situation while running your household can overwhelm your day to day," said Kopp, who helped run the May 8 simulation. "It's a lot of work.. . And it's a tough situation that millions of Americans have to deal with every day."
For two hours, participants spent their time living in the shoes of those living below the poverty level all while navigating available resources and challenges including homelessness and food insecurity.
Some experienced situations similar to Porter's, which can be cyclical leading to health issues which in turn affects the ability to bring in income.
Participant Mary Beth Hannan got the chance to step into the shoes of 19-year-old Joyce Jacobi.
Jacobi, although fictional, represents a large number of struggling parents living within Savannah's roughly 103 square miles.
She struggles prioritizing food, clothing and shelter for herself and her one-year-old son. Her household sees a weekly income of about $128 thanks to the help of her live-in boyfriend but basic expenses usually exceed income.
She's looked for jobs in the past, but being a high school dropout, her options are limited for employment. And then of course there's the cost of childcare if she chooses to work.
She's looked into social service programs but the wait for help is often long and navigating the process tends to be too confusing.
So she just avoids it altogether and hopes for a better future.
"It's exhausting because that's all you can think of," said Mary Beth Hannan," a simulation participant. "It's all consuming. It's how am I going to do this? Where am I going to go? And what am I going to have to do?"
And volunteers helped to simulate predatory behavior by those looking to take advantage of desperate situations.
Yolandra Shipp served as a payday lender.
"We cheated everybody," she said after the simulation. "This was an observation that I had. Because they were so stressed out, trying to figure things out that they did not pay attention. . . Everyone was so desperate."
And that was the point, according to Kopp.
The simulation was organized to illustrate the harsh reality faced by those 1 in 4 looking to improve their situations, she said.
"There are a lot of people who go to services like payday and quickcash and even pawn shop because they are desperate and have no other alternatives," she said.
At the heart of Savannah's poverty problem is a widening wealth gap coupled with underemployment and lack of resources.
Wealth inequality, or the wealth gap, is the unequal distribution of assets among residents of the United States. Wealth, differing from income, includes the values of homes, automobiles, personal valuables, businesses, savings, and investments.
"Wealth is what you have saved," Singeisen said. "It's the money in the bank that you're not using. Its owning your home -- you're building equity in your home. It's what's been passed down from generation to generation.. . That wealth gap I think is probably one of the biggest challenges our community and our country is facing right now."
The reasons for the wealth gap are many and complicated, including racially discriminatory housing and lending policies of the past.
The Great Recession triggered a sharp, prolonged decline in the wealth of American families, and an already large wealth gap between white households and black and Hispanic households widened further in its immediate aftermath.
The difference between what minority Americans earn and hold in wealth compared to white Americans has increased significantly since the onset of the Great Recession, according to a study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2018.
And the gap is on track to continue widening, according to Singeisen.
"We have to look at that because when that wealth is transferred from one generation to another, that helps that next generation get further ahead," she said. "As we're tracking now, households of color are tracking to eventually have zero wealth. And that's disturbing because if there is no wealth transfer to the next generation, how does that next generation do better? They're' just struggling more. So when we talk about intergenerational poverty, we really have to look at that wealth gap. And what can we do to shrink that gap." ...
Moving forward, a continued conversation and a holistic approach is needed to solving Savannah's crisis, Singeisen said.
"We have to take a holistic approach because it's not just one thing that creates poverty," she said. "And we have to work together."
Targeting workforce development and affordable housing are good places to start, she added.
Step Up Savannah sponsors the Chatham Apprentice Program, which is dedicated to helping unemployed and underemployed Chatham County residents find or create career paths that offer family-sustaining wages and opportunities for advancement.
"We're really focused in our workforce development and working with employers to find ways to push that hourly wage up," she said.
Last year, the Chatham Savannah Authority for the Homeless hosted a public forum in June for elected leaders and the public to discuss the need for affordable housing and how to reduce the homeless population.
About 44 percent of Savannah families can't afford quality housing.
And last month, City Council followed up on its effort by considering affordable housing initiatives, including a $20 million investment to acquire, redevelop and sell 1,000 blighted properties over a 10-year period.
Information from: Savannah Morning News, http://www.savannahnow.com