Biography: Sherry Mesle-Morain received her undergraduate degree from Tufts University, her Master of Education Degree from George Washington University, and her Masters in Social Work from Smith College School for Social Work. She began her career in financial aid for students at Nazareth College in Pittsford, New York. After raising two children she returned to academia at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa. She retired as the Director of Financial Aid Services for the university. Since her retirement she has focused on volunteer activities in Lamoni and, as she says found that people suddenly thought she could do anything. Her volunteer work with the Community Financial Support Coalition (FSC) guided her thinking to the subject of this blog.
Impact of Health Issues on Poverty in Rural Iowa
Life is good. Or, I should say, my life is good. I have a family I love and who loves me. We are kind to each other. I have more than plenty to eat and I have nice clothes to wear. I can afford the gas to drive to Atlantic to see my daughter and Kansas City to see my dad, my sister and my son. And I have energy to serve my community and to have fun. Not everyone in my small town in Southern Iowa is so blessed.
The City of Lamoni has some generous citizens who contribute to the Lamoni Community Financial Support Coalition (FSC), the mission of which is to provide modest emergency financial assistance to citizens in need—shifting the balance, so to speak. My stewardship with the FSC is to interview those folks who have requested financial assistance from our small pool of funds.
I began to sense that major medical issues were a primary factor in the lives of the people I meet with, but I know that hunches are not truth. Then I realized that I had the raw data to do a small statistical analysis of the reasons these good folks are in need of help. Of the 32 people seen, 75% of them or their children had medical issues that ate up their resources and/or kept them from working, at least temporarily, whether full-time or part-time. Their time off work was anywhere from a couple of weeks to a full year. One of the things that surprised me when I talked to people who had medical issues was that they took seriously their responsibility to pay their outstanding medical bills. Many used up their savings paying their bills and others were on payment plans that kept them in poverty. Some were on Medicaid, which relieved them of constant payments, but they still faced the fact of having no income because of their health issues. Occasionally someone had gone several days or a week without taking vital medications because they would not get paid for another week and could not afford to pay for their prescriptions. Four women were unemployed because of maternity leave. They not only could not work during those few weeks, but they also did not have paid maternity leave. And, of course, when they do go back to work they have to figure out-child care—who will provide it and how will they pay for it. This is a huge expense that eats up their minimum wage earnings.
Just a few days after I did this analysis I heard a news story on National Public Radio of a national study showing the same results. Both my analysis and the NPR story of April 20, 2012, by Jennifer Ludden verified my observation. There are three points Ludden made that I would like to share with you.
1) Two-thirds of women with young children now work. Nearly half are their family’s primary breadwinner. (Of the women I interviewed the majority were living with the fathers of their children, men who were either underemployed or unemployed. These are serious issues, but that is a subject for another day.)
2) Because so many companies do not offer paid sick leave or paid vacation, a mother who stays home to care for a sick child is at risk of being told not to return to work. If it is mom who is sick, she is in the same spot. She doesn’t get paid to stay home, so she can either care for her children herself when she is sick, or she can put them in day care and go to work sick so as to afford the child care.
3) Having a baby is a leading cause of temporary poverty. Many women with no maternity leave end up quitting their jobs to care for a baby. When they lose those needed jobs it is very hard to get back into the workforce.
While on the national level we have the necessary and intense discussions as to how to address unsolvable problems, how to manage the social safety net, and how to see to it that everyone gets health care, the people who request assistance from the Lamoni Community Financial Support Coalition are in real and immediate need: of diapers and wipes, of formula, of heat and water, of a place to live, of medical care, of gas to get to work and to medical appointments. The needs do not stop and they are real.
I am amazed at the resilience and optimism of these folks. But from time to time they need a helping hand to shift the balance in their favor.
Please note: the views expressed by guest authors are not necessarily those of the primary authors of Shifting the Balance. We do believe it is important to encourage the free flow of ideas and to promote collective action and compromise. In order to keep the country “in balance” we believe we should work together, and that means sharing and respecting ideas, including those that may be different from our own.