“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.
“It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”
– President Lyndon Johnson, in his January 8, 1964, State of the Union address
Fifty years after President Johnson declared war on poverty, nearly 50 million Americans – or close to 16 percent of the population – are still living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That number hasn’t budged in the past two years, but it’s a couple of ticks better than the 20 percent of Americans living in poverty during Johnson’s time, or as he said it in that State of the Union speech, the war on poverty was needed for the “one-fifth of all American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs.”
To be declared poor in this first quarter of the 21st century, a family of four (two adults, two children) earns no more than $24,000 annually.
Without economic safety nets, the U.S. Census Bureau tells us the number living in poverty would be much higher. For example, the bureau’s annual poverty report says without Social Security benefits for Americans age 65-plus, 54.7 percent of that demographic would be living in poverty, as opposed to the current 14.8 percent of seniors living in poverty.
In some circles these government safety nets that keep people from falling into society’s deep cracks are known as “entitlements.” According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, three-quarters of “entitlement” benefits go to the elderly and disabled. Only nine percent goes to non-elderly, non-disabled households without jobs. The remaining 16 percent goes to working households.
We Are HOPE, Inc., sees itself as a one-stop shop to help people of Door and Kewaunee counties prosper and excel, be it through helping a client find a job, providing home heating assistance or helping them with education or vocational training (HOPE stands for “Helping Others Prosper & Excel”).
Lora Jorgenson is one of those who turned to We Are HOPE, Inc. when, after a divorce and losing her job, heating bills were mounting in the 100-year-old, four-bedroom house she and her teenage daughter were left with after the divorce.
“I don’t need a four-bedroom house, but I’m kind of stuck there. If I were to sell the house, it wouldn’t be worth what I owe on it,” she said. “At the time I was off work. I was on unemployment and just starting school (she’s in her second year of college, pursuing a degree in business administration with a minor in environmental science). So it was kind of hard. My heating bills were ridiculous.”
Even with a new energy-efficient furnace that Jorgenson had installed, her utility budget plan was $320 a month. Worried that the ever-increasing utility bill would cause a downward spiral that would eventually lead to her losing the house to the bank, she went to We Are HOPE, Inc. (which was called Women’s Employment Project at the time) to find out if she qualified for energy assistance.
“I never really had to use assistance until I got divorced and then lost my job on top of it. Before that, I had money to pay my bills, but you come across hard times sometimes,” she said. “It definitely wasn’t something I saw myself having to do. I’ve always had pretty decent jobs.”
She learned she was eligible for the weatherization program.
“They sent someone out to survey the house and its energy inefficiencies,” Jorgenson said. “They ended up insulating the house and doing some upgrades like a new fridge, compact fluorescent light bulbs and things like that. Just insulating the house made an immense difference in my heating bill. I would never have been able to afford having my house insulated. It has allowed me not to need any assistance and now I can pay my heating bills.”
With the weatherization, Jorgenson said her monthly utility bill was cut in half, to $160.
“$160 a month may not seem like a lot of money to some people, but it was huge for me,” she said.
“I certainly appreciate that when I needed the assistance, it was available to me. It has allowed me to have lower heating costs and be able to afford it on my own. It’s a great program to have to help people out,” she said. “I’m on the border where I could get more assistance, but I don’t. I feel there are other people out there who need it more than me.”
Ultimately, Jorgenson said she hopes her daughter, now a freshman in high school, has learned from the experience.
“She’s had to go through this with me. She’s seen this, so I’m hoping she learns and sees the importance of struggling with an ultimate goal of going to school and getting a good job and not having to fall back on these programs, as great as they are,” Jorgenson said. “People need to know it’s there for a reason. There are families I know that have made a lot of money, then lost jobs, lost homes, never thinking it would happen to them. A lot of those people have a lot of pride. People shouldn’t be embarrassed or too afraid to ask for help if they need it.”
Lora Jorgenson’s is one of many success stories that take place in the unassuming offices of We Are HOPE, Inc. in the Cherry Point Mall in Sturgeon Bay.
The notion that the agency provides entitlements doesn’t sit well with CEO Sandy Duckett, who can tell you stories of proud men breaking down in tears as they ask for help after losing a job or suffering some other life crisis that requires them to swallow their pride and ask for assistance.
“These are not people who feel entitled. I have yet to see somebody come into this agency who has felt entitled,” Duckett said. “People think others are taking advantage of the system, but I can tell you most of the people who step through this door have never found themselves in these circumstances before, and who don’t like asking for help. We’ve had some very successful people who have found themselves in this situation because of the economy. We are an advocate in getting them the resources they need to be sustainable.”
The agency began in 1978 with a grant to help women get into the work force, hence its original name, the Women’s Employment Project. That name stuck even as the agency took on more responsibilities with the energy assistance and weatherization programs, adding the Wisconsin Job Center to the mix, vocational rehabilitation and education and training programs, and helping people who have been released from jail or prison return to society as a contributing member.
“In essence, I think what we’re doing so well right now in a lot of different areas, we are setting people up for success,” Duckett said.
Emily R. would agree with that assessment (she asked that we not use her real name). After leaving an abusive marriage and a restaurant business in Michigan, Emily and her daughter moved to Wisconsin because she had friends and a support system here.
“It left me in a position of asking what am I going to do with the rest of my life. How am I going to support my daughter being a single mom?” she said.
She heard about the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), one of the programs administered locally by We Are HOPE, Inc. through the Wisconsin Job Center.
“The WIA program paid for all my schooling, materials and mileage. That was a blessing,” she said. “I graduated (with honors) in 2013 as a certified medical assistant and now I’m working at a medical clinic as a casual call medical assistant.”
Emily said her life is on track now, thanks to the WIA program.
“For me it was a safety net. If it weren’t for that program, I wouldn’t be working where I am right now. It really has opened a wide door of opportunities for me,” she said.
But she adds that she gained more than just financial help from the program.
“It helped me financially and emotionally,” she said. “Now I have a chance to work and provide for my daughter. The emotional impact of me completing this boosted my self-esteem to be able to accomplish that. I’m extremely grateful for that. It required effort on my part to accomplish this. You have to have the initiative to make it happen. You have to be humble and put pride aside. I think it takes more courage to ask for help.”
“If people are working and have the ability to take care of themselves, a lot of the other problems go away – the food, the transportation,” Duckett said. “It’s so important for people to know we’re here. There are a lot of people between the ages of 19 and 21 who are struggling. Through our Workforce Investment Act, there are dollars for those young people to go back to school. We can help coach them.”
Duckett said another focus is helping the disabled find work.
“We’re creative in finding ways on how to work with people with disabilities,” she said. “We just wrote a grant to start a training program with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) to train people in the tourism industry. We hope we will get support from the DVR to start that program. We need to start doing things that make sense, but first we need the dollars to implement the program. It is like priming the pump. You have to put enough revenue in to make sure the system continues to work. Provide positive incentives for employers to expand their employment opportunities, and all these other problems will go away.”
While the agency receives federal, state and county dollars, it also relies on donors. That’s why Duckett is so willing to share the agency’s success stories.
“Our donors can see the results of their investment,” she said. “There are so many worthwhile organizations out there. How do you measure that return on your contribution? Donors can see that people are actually going back to work. That’s a great investment.”
Résumé Rework Opens Doors
When a man exhausted his unemployment benefits, he came to the Job Center uncertain what to do next. The client was referred to Food Share Employment and Training (FSET) and the Workforce Investment Act. Although he possessed a Bachelor’s degree in marketing, there were no local openings. After discussion and doing some career exploration in the different ways the client could use his education and transferrable skills, he reworked his résumé to be more appropriate for local openings. After three months, the client found a job with a manufacturer about 45 minutes away. The FSET program was able to assist with transportation to get him back and forth to work until his first paycheck. Within a month, the client accepted a position with a local manufacturer.
Back on Track After Prison
“Two and a half years ago when I walked into the Door County Job Center, I did not know what to expect. I was just getting home from doing seven years in prison and things looked really bleak as far as a job and just getting my life back on track.
“From the moment I spoke with the staff, I felt as if they really wanted to help me. Not once did anybody that works there ever look down at me, or make me feel as if I did not deserve a second chance. Instead, I think they saw my efforts at doing better and joined in on making sure that I succeeded. I went though a workshop course with them that led to me being able to obtain my commercial drivers license.
“After getting a job driving did not pan out, the staff stuck with me and pointed me in directions to local jobs. They even went so far as to call some connections they had to just try and get my foot in the door at a job.
“After months of trying, I was able to get in at [name of company withheld]. I have been there a year now and give credit to the entire staff at the Job Center.
To top things off, through them I was able to obtain a car so I could get around town and just start living a normal life. To date, I have a great job, a good car, my own apartment and just a whole new outlook on life.”
A Boost in Self-Esteem
Despite having a steady work history, a 58-year-old man who was enrolled in FSET for 2 1/2 years was unable to find steady employment, primarily because of a medical condition that caused uncontrollable tremors. After working with the Job Center and using services they provide, the client was able to increase his self esteem to the level that he was able to “sell” his skills to a local employer who hired him for a 30-hour a week maintenance position.
Developing a Plan Leads to Employment
This client, despite being skilled in several trades, had been unemployed for almost two years and was going through some difficult family problems. The Food Share Employment and Training (FSET) program was able to help him form a plan for employment and referrals for family issues. He was hired at Bay Shipbuilding starting at $17 an hour, with benefits.