It is late January 2014 and Ed Smith is waiting in line inside the Bellingham Food Bank. It is the warmest he has been in a couple weeks and he wishes his wife Emma would have come in with him. She is bundled up in the car because her hip has been really hurting during the cold weather. She has hip surgery scheduled for next week and they are thankful the surgery will be covered by Medicare.
Ed is 77 years old, a retired carpenter, and he and Emma struggle to get by. When Ed retired 15 years ago the $767 a month ($9,204 annual income) they received from Social Security plus some handy man jobs he picked up on the side were enough to get by. But with the increased cost of just about everything, Ed and Emma are very worried about what lies ahead for them. They are living on the edge and their future is uncertain.
You might ask yourself how do the Smiths get by on $767 per month? It isn't easy, they access a number of programs besides the food bank that help fill the gaps.
Later in the afternoon Ed has an appointment with Opportunity Council to get some help with their energy bills. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, or PSE HELP will save them money they can use to cover some of Emma's prescriptions. The Smiths had their home weatherized three years ago through Opportunity Council and have been saving about $350 per year on their energy bills. The savings help with property taxes and keeping the car on the road. They still keep the thermostat at 62 degrees, which aggravates Emma's hip but it keeps their utility bills low so they can supplement the $90 they receive per month from SNAP (food stamps). They access the food bank and routinely stop by the senior center or Maple Alley Inn for hot meals.
The Smiths are a local example of the approximately 46 million people in the United States living at or below the recognized poverty level. To be at the poverty level for a household of two means you make $15,730 or less per year; $23,850 or less for a household of four. What does that mean for Whatcom County? In Whatcom County there are approximately 30,946 people (7,643 children) living in poverty, struggling to get by. We also know that thousands of households just above the poverty level are struggling to makes ends meet as well.
Fortunately for millions of Americans like the Smiths, 50 years ago today President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The Economic Opportunity Act and subsequent policies put into motion a series of programs that have helped stabilize people in crisis, provide nutrition, education and training to prepare people to exit poverty and strengthened local communities. The act established programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Food Stamps (now SNAP), adult basic education, Volunteers in Service To America (VISTA), LIHEAP and dozens of other programs that have helped millions of Americans get their basic needs met and for many access a pathway to exit poverty.
As part of the act, President Johnson established Community Action Agencies like Opportunity Council with the intent of addressing problems and finding solutions to those problems at the local level. Opportunity Council was established in 1965. The agency is governed by a board of directors comprised of local citizens who guide the agency's activities to achieve the agency's mission of acting as a catalyst for positive change both in the community and in the lives of the people it serves.
The agency stabilizes people in crisis, prepares people to exit poverty and works in the community to help establish pathways out of poverty. We focus on systemic change like early childhood education on one end of the spectrum and housing chronically homeless people on the other end of the spectrum.
Please join us in celebrating President Johnson's signing of the Economic Opportunity Act 50 years ago today and join us this coming year as we celebrate 50 years of Opportunity Council helping people and changing lives.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dave Finet is executive director of the Opportunity Council. For more information online, oppco.org.