Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Is there Dignity in Low Wage Work?

Is there dignity in low wage work?  Of course there is – there is dignity in work!  But let’s get real for a moment.  According to the Economic Policy Institute’s Budget Calculator (, a family of four (4), two working parents, would require $62,268 to meet basic living expenses in Adams County.  A single parent with two children would require $54,358.  This is similar to what we find when we ask groups all across our counties.  For a family of three the numbers range from $49,000 - $78,000 depending on the group.  And yet we know wages in our local community, for service and agricultural work, are between $15,000 and $30,000 per year.  Based on our research, a family of three would have to work 3.6 minimum wage jobs to meet basic living expenses. That is 3.6 full time, minimum wage jobs!

So what is dignity?  One definition is “The state or quality of being worthy of honor.”  In fact, following the definition was this sentence “The dignity of manual labor.”  Interesting. 

I believe there is dignity in work, and I have a deep appreciation of those that work so my life can be easier – the people who go to work at convenience stores, restaurants, cleaning people, those working at Amazon so I can get my Prime Package in “only 2 days”.  And yet, I know, because I work with those folks on a daily basis, that most of those folks are low wage earners.  Working incredibly hard, but struggling to earn enough to make ends meet.  Frequently with few or no benefits.  Frequently no PTO or Sick Leave.  Frequently little or no personal meaning in the work.  And when you work in those conditions, when there is constantly not enough, life becomes more chaotic.  If your car breaks down, or the kids get sick, or your evening child care provider backs out – it is incredibly impactful to your ability to stay above water.  You may lose everything you have because of what might be a bump in the road for others.  Do you get to go on vacation?  Can you enroll your children in extracurricular activities?  Can you own a home?  Can you even live in a safe apartment?  Can you have cable without people judging you?  And if you, though you are working full time or more than full time, still qualify for SNAP benefits (food stamps) can you shop without judgement?  The answer to most of those question is no.

There will always be a need for low wage earners – people who are working just as hard as you and I, for lower wages.  Often times working more hours at hard physical labor for low wages.  They have no retirement, no pension, no 401K.  They work in jobs that impact their bodies and health – how long can you work at a factory stacking boxes.  What happens when your body can’t do it anymore?  How do you support yourself then, because Social Security is still years away?

Look around tomorrow as you go about your day.  Take a look at all the people in your path, working hard in low wage jobs – frequently at more than one low wage job so they can support themselves and their families.  And for many of those people, the jobs they work for the entirety of their life, will be low wage jobs.  This is us, right?  This is our community.  How do we treat people in our daily interactions?  How do we talk about and value their work?  We didn’t choose who are parents were, where we were born, or the aptitudes and talents we received.  Where we come from matters – it may not determine all of our future, but it certainly determines how hard the path to success is.  So how can we make sure there is dignity in low wage work?

Monday, December 5, 2016

We Need You!

The holiday season brings about a myriad of emotions – thankfulness, gratitude, a bit of introspection and with it the realization that it has been a tough year.  I love my job – it feeds my soul and it is such critical work!  But there is a difficult side to working in a non-profit organization, especially one doing anti-poverty work. 

The truth is, organizations like SCCAP support the social infrastructure in a community.  But we are often invisible, operating under the radar.  We help low-wage earners afford child care so they can work (imagine if more than 50% of your $10.00 per hour job went to child care costs – how could you afford to work?)  We weatherize houses so individuals can afford to heat and cool their houses, saving energy usage positively impacting the environment.  We provide temporary housing in our shelters and case management for those families so that they can get back on their feet and support themselves and their children.  We provide hard skill job training and critical soft skill training and emotional and social supports so that individuals from generational poverty can become productive workers, breaking the cycle of poverty.  We provide nutrition classes, and one on one supports, as well as, healthy food for families to improve their health and welfare – which saves health care costs in the short and long run.  We provide small scholarships for individuals to get skill training and certification to help improve their earning potential.  We provide free trainings, poverty simulations and other assistance to the faith community, businesses, social services, the faith community and education so that they can get better outcomes from the families we serve. 

We provide a hand up and support the local economic and social infrastructure – strengthening our community.   But on a  constant basis we face with budget cuts and the need to do more with less.  Eleven years ago when I first became the Executive Director of SCCAP, we were serving about 16,000 clients with a staff of 160, today we serve more than 32,000 with a staff of 106 – and our funding is almost exactly the same.  When I started, I took over our IT support – we had roughly 26 computers to support and one server.  I still support our IT today but now we have more than 106 computers, 2 servers and 3 websites on top of my normal duties.  And I am not alone.  Most of my staff now do the work of more than one staff person.  We are incredibly administratively thin – pushing dollars to fill gaps in services to clients.  We are doing more with less and stretched so thin that I sometimes wonder how we do what we do so well (we are a top performer in every program and we have earned PANO’s Standards of Excellence Accreditation). 
Then in June we received news that Utility Assistance was being moved from community partners to a universal call center – significantly cutting our emergency services funding which keeps our food pantries open.  Then in October we found that we received 80% cuts to shelter operation funding (from a request of $176,000 reduced to $36,000).  No warning.  No control over those kind of cuts – not related to how hard you work or your outcomes – just a change in direction of a funder.  And so we find ourselves again trying to figure out how to make it work.   How to keep critical programs open.  How to do more with less.  How to keep serving 32,000 clients and keep 106 staff employed.  Poverty is not a SCCAP problem, it is a community problem.  Aging, addiction, housing, mental health, children with disabilities are not problems owned by non-profits – they are community problems.  I urge you, during this holiday season, to find organizations in your local community that impact issues you care about and support them with your time, funding and talents – we need you!  We really need you!  And I promise – the feeling you receive from making a difference in the lives of others is far greater than the feeling you get from any gift under a tree!

Monday, October 3, 2016


Sonder, n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own (The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.)  This word, though only popular in pop culture, has so much meaning for me.  I walk alongside the lives of so many individuals.  I get an inside glimpse of people going through extreme stress and achieving amazing goals and get the privilege of traveling that journey with them, of hearing their fears, hopes, losses and aspirations. 

I remember when my mother died suddenly at 57, I wasn’t ready to let her go and I grieved for a long time, the loss was so profound.  A close co-worker asked me three months after her passing “when was I going to get back to normal.”  She had never lost someone close to her.  When her own mother died from cancer years later, she called in that grief-stricken moment and told me her mother died.  The pain in her voice was palatable, I knew it, I had felt it before.  Sonder.

We see people on TV.  We see them acting in ways that are different than how we would act in a given situation and we make judgments – we all do it.  We forget that their pain, their sorrow, their hopes, their dreams, how much they love their children, their significant others – is just as vivid as how we love our own children and significant others.  Their pain, though potentially expressed differently, is just as real, just as vivid as our own.   If we can understand that, if we can see the pain, the joy, the life in another, we can let go of some of the judgment and feel for those around us.  This broadens our capacity for compassion and caring.  Broadens our desire to see things get better for others and to look for real sustainable solutions. It helps us understand that behaviors happen for a reason and until we can reach out to understand the reason, it is hard for us to achieve real change.

A highly respected businessman in our community was at a meeting recently and shared “That others had not had the same opportunity as he had and he wanted to try and make that possible.”  Impressive.  In the scope of his incredibly busy, vivid life, full of his own tremendous joys and sorrows – he paused and could see that there are others struggling around him and he wants to make a difference.  He chose to see, and that choice is important.  We can, at any given time, see or turn away, and sometimes because it is too painful, sometimes because we don’t understand, sometimes because we feel guilt, or sometimes because our own life demands so much, we turn away, make judgments, or label those experiences of others as invalid.  Just as my coworker asked me when I would “return to normal” – we discount the experiences of others.  But we can choose to see, seek to understand, and allow ourselves to walk alongside others whose life experiences are different than our own. 

Sonder.  Whether in politics, riots in communities, or refugees fleeing their homes, there is a reason that people behave as they do.  Their experiences and perceptions, though potentially different than our own, are just as valid, just as colorful, just as real as our own and they drive our own perceptions, judgments and beliefs.  But if we can allow ourselves to see life through the colorful blue, green, or brown eyes of someone else – seek to understand the life they live, we can learn so much and be changed for the better! 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

There's No Place Like Home!

Imagine what your life would be like if you didn’t have a home to live in.  If you were facing eviction and you didn’t know where you and your children would live.  If you thought that where you were living was just too expensive but when you looked around, the cost of rentals was higher than you pay now.  Imagine if you were working, often more than one job, and you still couldn’t afford to live in your community. How would that impact your work, your sense of self, your health, your children, your future? 

I was stunned, at the recent Commissioners Forum on Housing, by the speakers’ data and viewpoints on the unaffordability of housing.  We see it on a daily basis – our shelters are full of families (most of them working) who can’t afford housing in our community.  But hearing it from a business, health, planning and educational perspective was astounding.  The impacts on our community are so vast.  Dr. Amy Dailey, from Gettysburg College, shared the data and the correlation between housing and depression, stress and other health issues.  Suzanne Christianson, a local realtor, shared the difficulties of finding housing for low wage families and seniors on a fixed income.  Rob Thaeler, Principal Planner for Adams County shared the facts about housing in our local community and how most of the housing developed here draws from those moving into our area and working outside of the county - with most houses being built costing above $250,000.

Dr. Chris Echterling from Wellspan Health (also Physician of the Year in Pennsylvania for 2016) shared stories about how housing significantly impacts a family’s ability to be healthy and the new data on addiction and recovery and their strong ties to housing, as well as, the cost of providing housing compared to providing shelter space, mental health units and health care - it was so compelling.   

Robin Fitzpatrick shared data relating to business and how local HR reps said that families earning under $50,000 per year can’t afford housing (and many earning under $80,000 can’t either) and the impact on their businesses.  When she shared that individuals working in family/social services just earn enough to cover the costs for a one-person family, that was bad enough, but she went on to share that those in the service industry - who support our tourism economy don’t earn enough to even support a family of one – I couldn’t help but think of how big this problem is.

But most of all, the stories shared by Kelly DeWees, from Gettysburg School District, about the more than 128 homeless children the district serves and the story of a family renting a U-Haul trailer by the week so that their kids could sleep in a shelter that was cheaper than housing in the community, I was heartbroken. 

This isn’t a social services problem!  And if you mistakenly think the social services world has it covered, you are so very wrong.  There are nearly no resources to help – governmental or otherwise.  And this isn’t a people making the wrong choices problem – it is a matter of numbers.  We live in a community fueled by agriculture and tourism – traditionally low wage jobs-  but we live in a college town that is a bedroom community to Baltimore and Washington.  A beautiful community in a state that offers tax advantages for those retiring here.  Those factors push up the cost of living – which wouldn’t be a problem if we had wages that enabled people who work in our community to afford to live here – but for many, that just isn’t the case.  Poverty in our community is working families who earn low wages (often from more than one job) and seniors on a fixed income.  If you work in Adams County, you may well be struggling to live in Adams County.  We have to fix this!  We, as a community, have to change this.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Bearing Scars but Growing Stronger.

A dear friend of mine had come across the country to Harrisburg for work.  We hadn’t seen each other for more than two years and I was really anxious to see her.  Our last time together had been when her husband was very ill; he’d had terminal cancer. And I wanted to see her, to see that she was as okay as could be in this circumstance.  We’d talked many times over the course of the two years, and I had tried to be as supportive as I could from so far away, but the truth is, aside from being present, caring, and empathetic; there just isn’t much you can do to ease someone’s grief.   It is so raw, so real and certainly this lovely couple didn’t deserve this, my friend didn’t deserve this.

It was so good to see her; we had dinner and talked for hours.  Processing life experiences we both have had, sharing tears and laughter.   In part of our discussions, she said “You know I didn’t choose this journey, but at some point I had to decide that since I am on this journey, I am going to be an inquisitive tourist – I am going to learn what I can, I am going to make some value come out of it.” She shared some of what she learned about herself, her husband, life, and how her perspectives have changed.  I haven’t stopped thinking about that since we talked.  She is a brilliant, insightful woman.  And this change in perspective didn’t change the pain – the suffering, or the loss.  But it allowed her, during this horrendous experience, to allow herself to change, to see things differently.  She is still herself and yet totally different.  I know that sounds like a contradiction, but the depth of her life has changed.  She is still sad, and still, of course, bears the present marks of grief, but in some ways she is even more comfortable in her own skin – she owns the experience, not running from it, but enduring and going through it.

Kahlil Gibran said "Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars." Life is full of experiences good and bad, difficult and gratifying.  Each experience provides an opportunity to change our trajectory, our perspectives, to help us become more authentic and open us up to more.  There is so much to learn, so much to experience, both good and bad.  And we, or at least I, can try and pull away from the painful experiences as if I can “work” my way through them instead of experiencing them, instead of experiencing life.  Not only are we trying to avoid the unavoidable, but we waste energy fighting the wrong stuff.  We can become judgmental of others, not understanding that they are on an equally valid journey, full of difficulties and joys.  We might see our own experiences as the only right path. But life is an unpredictable journey, full of opportunities to see differently, to grow, to become more of ourselves, deeper, richer, more authentic. 

I think about her words frequently, trying to be an inquisitive tourist on my own journey, enjoying the cultures and experiences around me, learning to endure and go through difficulties instead of avoiding them, and appreciating those precious people who have helped me grow and learn more about myself through the process.  And just as important, to me at least, is joining others on their journey, supporting them when appropriate, and walking beside them when they just need someone to be present, valuing and respecting their journey, their life, their goals.  Change and pain are unavoidable but we can be changed for the better if we allow it and see it all as part of the glorious journey we are on.  Bearing scars but growing stronger.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Knowing Versus Feeling - Such a Profound Difference!

We had a national speaker, Jodi Pfarr, come do training for our staff on Living in a Diverse World.  I had heard some of it at a conference but the whole training was incredibly impactful. 

We took some time to really look at dominant cultures, where we each fit, and how we tend to normalize that context.  But the way she did it was so concrete and tangible.  We had a diagram of 12 pairs of triangles (one of each pairs was right side up and blue while the other was upside down and red).  We identified 12 situations where policy or systems were geared toward the dominant culture (like being right handed versus left handed, middle class versus poverty, etc…).  When we were done identifying the 12 situations, we each circled, on our own papers, where we were part of the dominant culture and where we were not.  It helped us have a context for our discussions for the rest of the day. 

It was a great day and a number of staff told me it was the best training they ever attended.  They want to put red and blue triangles on their computers to remind them that others may see things from a different perspective and that it is a valid perspective. 

I was talking to Jodi afterwards and she said something that was so profound to me.  She said when you are part of the dominant culture you get it academically, you can know it – but when you are part of the non-dominant culture you feel it because you are experiencing it.  This is not new information and really it’s pretty obvious – experience speaks louder in our heads and hearts than knowledge, but hearing it in this context, around cultural norms, really made me think.   

Someone I care deeply about was dealing with mental health issues.  They were feeling particularly vulnerable and couldn’t reach a family member so they called crisis – exactly as they were supposed to do.  Four state police cars showed up at their house and took them in handcuffs to the hospital even though they were not at all violent and were going completely voluntarily – it is standard protocol.  I met them there and we were taken to an empty room – just a mattress on the floor.  I sat, in my dress, on the floor beside them – not wanting them to feel like everyone who was interacting with them was looking down on them.  I serve on a health systems board so I know those processes exist to keep staff and the individual safe.  But I cannot put into words what experiencing it felt like.  And as much as I felt it, I can’t even imagine how difficult it was for the individual I was with.  Voiceless.  Vulnerable.  Feeling the full weight of the experience.    

We can know about the complexities, the difficulties that come from feeling like you have little or no voice, but that is far different than feeling voiceless.  Obvious, I know – but so many truths are that way, simple and overlooked.  As Marcel Proust said “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Beautiful Shades of Color

Steven Covey has a quote I love “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.” I’m a quote person – well actually maybe more precisely, I am a person who loves to understand the experiences of others, and I feel like quotes provide a glimpse into a piece of the soul of another.  The word “sonder” is the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own – how profound and amazing.  My daughter and I frequently ponder that as we sit at a cafĂ© or walk down the street.  People all around us have profound stories and experiences – just as poignant and meaningful, wonderful and difficult, as our own experiences.  The song “I Gave You All” by Mumford and Sons illustrates that point to me when they say “How can you say that your truth is greater than ours.” 

So simple. So poignant. And so very true.  Our truth is based on our experiences, the life we have lived, and what we have seen.  And somehow we make the leap that our truth is the same as those around us and when it is not we can negate the experiences of others because our own journey is different than theirs.  It seems to be part of the American Way to believe someone is right and someone is wrong – concretely right or wrong.  Frequently with no room for variations – we see shades of gray (or as I like to see it, shades of beautiful colors) as somehow wrong.  We discount things, and worse yet, people, because they don’t meet some arbitrary criteria we established.

I was recently walking the halls of a hospital with a loved one.  There was a young man on the floor who had been there for a number of weeks.  Ryan has some developmental disabilities, as well as, some mental health issues.  He was a delightful young man, with the kindest soul.  He made friends with everyone (including me) and talked about his dreams and aspirations.  During the course of my visit one night he made a really astute observation about his roommate and no one listened to him – including me.  About 20 minutes later an event occurred that showed how astute he was – he saw what we had all missed.  I was once again reminded of my own stereotypes and assumptions, reminded to not write someone off because they were different than me, but to listen more closely, to really hear from others. 

People all around us have profound gifts, the more we recognize that, the richer our lives can be.  The more we see that people all around us are having experiences that are just as profound as ours.  That though they may have lived life differently, their experiences are just as valid as ours.  Their truth is just as real, just as poignant even if it is different than our own.    Shades of color that, when we pay attention, can help us so much more clearly understand the wonders, issues, and complexities of life.  We can see more.  We can see further.

I work with families on a daily basis that are discounted or ignored.  Their truth, based on their very real and valid experiences, is different than many of ours.  Yet smart, profound and telling – a different shade of color that helps us more clearly see the issues, so we can more appropriately look for solutions.  Imagine what the world would be like if we embraced the idea of the word “sonder” – that we saw the benefit of those very real and different experiences of those walking around us – think of the problems we could solve if we could see it more completely.  Think of how much more rich the picture becomes when we add beautiful hues of color and design!