Giving New Life to Rural Indiana

This series provides insight about the economic and social issues affecting rural Indiana and highlights the public-private partnerships that are helping turn the tide. Check in each Tuesday for a new segment.

Paths Out of Poverty

Extension Works​hops Offer Wealth of Resources to Struggling Hoosiers

By Natalie van Hoose

Larissa WilliamsPurdue Extension's Getting Ahead class helped Larissa Williams turn her life around. She has a new career and a new outlook on life. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Larissa Williams of Huntington, Ind., was in a canoe without paddles, headed over the edge of a thundering waterfall, when she showed up to the first day of a Getting Ahead class led by Purdue Extension.

At least, that is how she felt at the time.

A college-educated wife and mother of two, Williams was struggling to get back on her feet after a disability had kept her out of the workplace for several years. She wanted to become a certified nurse assistant, but life below the poverty line had bankrupted her self-esteem.

"I was scared," she says. "Not being able to work made me feel like a loser. I didn't want to crash and burn."

She expected Getting Ahead—billed as a class on financial stability—to offer tips for fine-tuning her résumé and building a budget. But the class surprised her.

"Getting Ahead is not just about getting a job," she says. "It teaches you social skills, how to network, how to build friendships and how to get the resources you need to make a better life for yourself. Getting Ahead shows you what you didn't know."

Thanks to the class, Williams realized that her habit of avoiding eye contact made her appear insecure and shifty, jeopardizing her chances of acing a job interview. But what she most valued was the moral support she received from her fellow participants.

"They asked me if I was getting to my nursing classes, how I was doing. I was accountable to these people."

The class helped her regain a sense of self-worth, and she successfully completed her nursing assistant certification. She now works in home health care and is financially stable.

"I feel a lot safer," she says. "I'm still in that canoe, but I'm floating on a peaceful river—and I have paddles."

From Participant to Leader

Williams' experience has motivated her to co-lead Getting Ahead classes with Karen Hinshaw, Huntington County's Purdue Extension Health and Human Sciences educator. She also volunteers for Community Action Poverty Simulation exercises, interactive role-plays designed to help middle-income people better understand what life is like in a typical low-income family.

Getting Ahead and the poverty simulations "fly in the face of the idea that people are poor because they are lazy," says Williams.

The memory of being on the wrong side of that stereotype still makes her bristle.

"The first few times you hear that, you cry. Then you get angry. Then you try to educate people."

Poverty simulations are "eye-openers," she says. Participants must survive four 15-minute "weeks" on a shoestring budget—while facing eviction, long lines at government assistance agencies and unpredictable family crises.

"People in decision-making positions have no idea what life in poverty is like. To see them realize how tough it is makes my day. Actually, it makes my month."

Bridging the Class Divide

Building lasting relationships between Huntington County's middle and lower classes is a full-time job for Hinshaw.

A native of Huntington, she has watched the needs of her home county swell as local factories and companies shut their doors and move elsewhere, leaving the rural community of 38,000 strapped for jobs and putting employers in a position to be selective.

As a result, many Huntington residents who used to be comfortably middle-income now find themselves in line at the local food pantry.

"There's been a huge increase in the need for food and assistance with rent and utility bills," Hinshaw says. "Offering the Getting Ahead class is one way that we're trying to address the reasons why people are not financially stable."

Hinshaw also tries to foster a more accurate understanding of poverty in those who work closely with low-income people. Along with Purdue Extension educators Teresa Witkoske and Annette Lawler, Hinshaw leads Bridges out of Poverty workshops on the "hidden rules" of class and the tools that can help others span the gap between poverty and a more sustainable lifestyle.

"What people on both sides of the class divide often don't realize is that the middle class is running things," she says. "You have to be able to function in that world and play by middle-class rules in order to succeed. And many of those rules are unspoken."

Karen Hinshaw, a Purdue Extension educator in Huntington County, teaches programs to help the growing number of residents affected by poverty. Key to sustainable change, she says, is helping people in poverty identify and access the resources they need. (Video by Kelsey Getzin)

Learning to Be a Good Neighbor

One organization to benefit from the Bridges training is Love in the Name of Christ of Huntington County, a Huntington-based ministry that maintains food pantries and a thrift store and offers assistance with rent and utility bills. The ministry's coordinator, Kyle Miller, invited Hinshaw to train his staff in an effort to shift the organization's focus from providing handouts to cultivating relationships with those it serves.

Volunteer staff began learning people's names and stories, referring to them as "neighbors" rather than "clients."

"When we stopped using 'us versus them' language, we saw a lot of walls break down," Miller says. "We started asking people what they needed and letting them provide their own assessments, rather than assume we knew how to fix their situation."

What makes Bridges out of Poverty unique, he says, is its emphasis on relationships.

"Taking time to get to know people—that's the avenue to long-term changes. Whatever income, we're all in this poverty thing together."

Tightening the Rust Belt

Huntington County residents are not the only ones to feel the pinch of hard times. Indiana has lagged behind much of the U.S. in its recovery from the economic recession that began in 2007.

Twenty-eight percent of Indiana jobs are poverty-wage, a higher percentage than all neighboring states, including Kentucky. Indiana also has the highest proportion of fast-food jobs per capita in the nation.

Indiana in Need
  • Nearly 1 million Hoosiers are living in poverty, earning an annual income of less than $11,000 for an individual, $15,510 for a family of two and $19,530 for a family of three.
  • Indiana's poverty rate increased by 58.7 percent from 2000 to 2011, the highest increase in the nation.
  • 2.24 million Hoosiers are low-income, and about 46 percent of children live in low-income households.
  • Indiana has the 9th most expensive childcare costs in the U.S. when calculated by percentage of income.
  • Indiana ranks 44th in the nation in the percentage of residents with bachelor's degrees.
  • About 54 percent of Indiana's jobs are middle-skill, requiring less than a college degree but more than a high school education.

Source: Indiana Institute for Working Families

At the same time that the state's once-robust manufacturing industry went into a decline, government-sponsored aid programs shrank, says Derek Thomas, a senior policy analyst for the Indiana Institute for Working Families, a non-partisan think-tank.

"A lot of people were left out in cold," he says.

From 2007 to 2011, the number of unemployed Hoosiers increased by about 92 percent, while the number of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cases decreased by 51 percent.

About one in six Hoosiers is now living in poverty with an annual income of less than $11,000. About 2.24 million—roughly a third of the state—are low-income, and nearly half of Hoosier children live in low-income households.

"This has really been a lost decade for many Indiana families," Thomas says. "We have a long ways to go."

More Than Money

But according to Hinshaw, rebuilding the financial stability of Hoosier families does not hinge solely on providing economic opportunities. The key to sustainable change, she says, is helping people in poverty identify and access the resources they need. That philosophy is what keeps the door to her Purdue Extension office in downtown Huntington open.

"To watch people come in feeling worthless and be able to encourage and empower them to figure out who they are, what they want, and how to get there—there's nothing more rewarding than that."

Next Tuesday: Putting down roots in New Albany's historic area, River City Winery leads a downtown revitalization.

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