SEVCA's Survey of Local Households with Lower Incomes Reveals Hardships of Poverty
On September 17, the Census Bureau released its annual American Community Survey, which includes state and local data on a host of indicators, including poverty rates, income, wages, unemployment, housing cost burdens, etc. While data for the U.S. as a whole shows a slight improvement in the poverty rate and income levels, in Vermont household incomes have remained stagnant and the poverty rate stands at 12.2%, no significant improvement from the previous year. Click here to find out more.
SEVCA also conducted a recent survey on the needs of lower income residents in its service area, which portrays a troubling picture of the difficulties so many of our neighbors face as they struggle to make ends meet. SEVCA distributed surveys to many of the people who use its services, and also asked various other community organizations to complete the survey and help distribute it to their clients to complete, as part of its Community Assessment. Community Action Agencies like SEVCA conduct such an assessment at least every three years to inform its strategies to address the needs and service gaps in the community. Over 350 lower-income residents responded. While the survey is not necessarily representative of the low-income population as a whole, it does offer some insights into their experiences. Highlights of the results include the following:
- Households with lower incomes struggle just to meet their basic needs. 64% of those surveyed said their household income is not enough to meet their family’s basic needs (i.e. food, shelter, clothing, medical care, etc.). 69% said they have had to borrow money or use their credit cards just to pay for their basic needs.
- Chronic lack of adequate income or even a period of financial stress can lead to a debt trap for many lower-income households. 60% of survey respondents said they can’t afford the monthly payments on their debt, and 68% said they can’t get credit or have bad credit. Only 17% of those surveyed said they are able to save money regularly.
- Few opportunities other than low-wage work are available to this population. Among lower-income workers surveyed, 85% said that most of the jobs they can get don’t pay well, and 85% said they and/or their partner had to work more than 40 hours/week just to pay the bills.
- More education and/or training is needed to help households move out of poverty. 66% of respondents said they need more education or training to get a better job, and 79% of this group said they are not able to afford the education or training program they need. 50% said they would like to start a business but need more support and training.
- Lack of transportation and lack of affordable child care are common employment barriers. 43% of respondents said they had trouble getting or keeping a job due to problems with transportation, and 34% had trouble getting or keeping a job because they could not find affordable child care. In general, 71% of respondents said that public transportation does not go where they need to go at the times they need it, and 69% of those with a car said they had a hard time maintaining it.
- Many people in lower-income households are no longer able to work. A large proportion of those we surveyed were disabled and unable to work (28%) and/or retired (20%) and on fixed incomes.
- Housing costs represent one of the most persistent barriers to sustainability for low-income households. 86% of respondents agreed that it is hard to find affordable, safe housing in their area, and 68% said that they have a hard time paying their rent and/or mortgage. 40% said they are behind in their rent or mortgage payments, and are therefore at risk of homelessness. Housing subsidies are scarce: only 12% of those surveyed had rental assistance or lived in affordable housing.
- Housing quality is also a concern, with 80% of lower-income homeowners surveyed saying that their home needs major repairs but they can’t afford them. 68% of all respondents said that their home or apartment was cold in the winter and/or not insulated well.
- Most lower income households have trouble making ends meet despite receiving at least some public benefits. For example, 80% of survey respondents received 3SquaresVT (Food Stamps ), yet 60% of those surveyed said they sometimes skip meals to save money on food, one of the indicators of food insecurity. 28% said they don’t have enough nutritious food to feed themselves and their families.
- Lack of access to dental care emerged as a major issue among the households surveyed, with 66% saying that they have a hard time finding dentists that take their insurance. In comparison, only 19% said they had a hard time finding doctors that take their insurance. 63% of the respondents indicated they had Medicaid/Dr. Dinosaur, 36% had Medicare, and 18% had a VT Health Connect medical plan.
- Mental health is also a significant concern for many lower-income households. Sometimes poor mental health is a contributing factor to a household being in poverty, and other times the stresses of living in poverty are at the root of the mental health problems experienced. 58% of survey respondents say they or someone in their family needs help with a problem like depression, anxiety/stress, or other mental health issue.
SEVCA’s Community Assessment also included surveys of organizations throughout Windham and Windsor counties (91 responded) and SEVCA staff to get their perspectives on community needs. A more complete description of survey results and key findings is available HERE.