A philanthropic group supporting efforts to improve the lives of women and girls in Northeast Florida said affordable housing, education, and jobs that pay a living wage are needed in Nassau County, where the U.S. Census Bureau says 12 percent of people live below the poverty rate.
The Women’s Giving Alliance — an initiative of the Community Foundation – said poverty levels are higher than federal reports claim because of dusty guidelines that put more emphasis on the price of food than the rising costs of housing and healthcare. In reality, “functional poverty,” impacts 37 percent of the population, or about one in three people, according to statistics offered Wednesday at WGA’s panel discussion in Fernandina Beach: ‘Breaking the Cycle of Female Poverty in Nassau County.’
“Women are struggling,” said Moderator Kate Ligare, WGA’s outreach coordinator.
Among the startling stats:
- 40 percent of the population in Fernandina Beach lives below the poverty rate; in Callahan, it’s 35 percent.
- Some 450 students in Nassau County schools are homeless
- 40 percent of children in Florida who live in poverty, live with a female head of household.
According to Ms. Ligare, women need help – especially women of color – because they hold a disproportionate share of low-wage jobs that provide few benefits, such as at hotels and shops. And, in the office, women often hold low-rung positions, such as receptionist.
Because WGA members – 409 of them in Duval, Baker, Clay, and Putnam Counties, including 45 members in Nassau County (each contributing $1,500 annually — the organization has $3.5 million in endowed funds) already had empathy for women in need, Ms. Ligare told the dozens of women in attendance, who gathered at round tables eating salads and cookies in the meeting room at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, they would get down to business.
“Keep your hankies in your purse,” she said. “We’re here to talk about solutions.”
Affordable housing is the top solution for Wanda Lanier, executive director of Barnabas, a social service agency on Jasmine St. that provides food and healthcare, among other assistance, for people in need.
“Affordable housing is not public housing,” she said.
According to Ms. Lanier, affordable housing means spending no more than 30 percent of income on shelter, and under the government’s income guidelines that’s $500 a month.
“Can somebody find me an apartment for $500?” she said.
Most people in poverty pay 50 percent or more of their income on housing, she said, and they rely on predatory lenders charging 400 to 500 percent interest rates to help make ends meet because low interest bank loans aren’t an option.
Ms. Lanier said Nassau County organized an Affordable Housing Advisory Committee and is looking into policies to increase opportunities for developers. The next meeting is Feb. 21. There were complaints from a few people in the audience that the group, formed last year and chaired by Commissioner Justin Taylor (email@example.com), was moving at a glacial pace.
She said poverty is a significant issue in Nassau County, including Fernandina Beach, where the problem “is a much more hidden problem.”
Ms. Lanier, who has been on the job for more than seven years, said the agency is named after St. Barnabas, the patron saint of encouragement and was formed to support churches that had been “overwhelmed” with requests for assistance, “especially with requests for food.” When she arrived on the job, she asked about local resources and was told there weren’t any.
“Zero, nothing” she said. “I was overwhelmed.”
Ms. Lanier said Barnabas serves an older group, 45 to 60 years of age. “They’re grandparents taking care of children and grandchildren,” she said. And that’s different than Jacksonville, where people receiving assistance are younger, she said.
Ms. Lanier said Barnabas is reaching out to the county’s west side with a mobile food pantry. She said there are efforts to provide meats and fresh produce and there are many people who don’t have transportation to Barnabas’s Fernandina office to pick up supplies.
Ms. Lanier said quick, political programs, such as ‘Welfare to Work’ don’t solve poverty. And, she said, the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality is misguided because, “most people aren’t born with the same bootstraps.”
According to Ms. Lanier, many people in poverty are working two and three jobs and can’t get ahead.
“They need work that pays a living wage,” she said.
Jennett Baker, a nurse and retired U.S. Army Major, who grew up in Fernandina and also served as a panelist, said her four adult children moved from the area because they couldn’t find local jobs with good wages.
Ms. Baker raises awareness for chronic and infectious diseases as the executive director of the Coalition for the Re-education/Elimination of Ethnic Disparities in Health (CREED). She said she tells women to always prepare to be single because partners will die, leave, or divorce.
“Education is your way out,” she said.
Angie Page McClellan, the liaison for homeless students at the Nassau County School District, said she coordinates with a wide range of service agencies to help struggling students, who, she believes, need to participate in STEM programs, clubs, and sports, but often can’t experience such activities because of fees, transportation, and minimum grade requirements. For those who want to help, Ms. McClellan suggested mentoring a student.
“You might make a difference for them,” she said.
WGA supports women and girls in Nassau, Duval, Clay, Baker, and Putnam counties through collective fundraising, which its 409 members, including 45 in Nassau County, describe as a, ‘a giving circle.’
The panel also included Reverend Stephen Mazingo, rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, who discussed institutions that go into protection mode when scandal hits, and he mentioned USA Gymnastics, which had for many years a sexual predator on the payroll.
At the end of the panel discussion, speakers were asked for one or two suggestions about moving forward. Rev. Mazingo recommended forgiveness. “Being able to forgive allows us to move on with our lives,” he said.
There was also a suggestion, by others, to read the “best book” on Poverty: Bridges out of Poverty.
Note WGA’s Nassau Co-Connector is Pat Hayden, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.