BRATTLEBORO—How long does it take a single mom with three children under the age of five to wash a load of laundry?
Prudence Pease, Working Bridges resource coordinator with Granite United Way in New Hampshire, posed her question to an audience of 30, representing 15 businesses, last week.
Considering nobody watches their washer or dryer as it's working, but instead does other tasks until the machine finishes, said Pease, the hypothetical mom will focus on that one load of laundry for 15 minutes.
How long does it take a single mom with three children under the age of five, no car, and no washer or dryer, to bundle up the children, gather up the wash basket, walk to a laundromat, wash a load of laundry, and then walk home? Pease asked.
Three hours and 50 minutes.
“If you’re living in poverty, every action takes you five to seven times longer,” said Pease.
Despite the challenges, people in poverty also have developed skills through their experience, she said. Employers willing to support their impoverished employees benefit from the employees’ creativity, problem solving, resourcefulness, and resilience.
Pease presented a workshop on economic diversity during the kick-off event to the United Way of Windham County’s (UWWC) Working Bridges program on May 15.
Working Bridges collaborates with employers. The program links employees on low incomes or struggling with poverty with services, education, programs, and low interest emergency loans.
The low-to-moderate-wage employees benefit from increased stability and job advancement. Employers benefit from increased work force retention and productivity, say proponents of the program.
According to Sue Graff, community investment director with UWWC, many managers witness employees missing work because they lack resources such as child care, elder care, or transportation, or because they are ill.
In most work places, these missed days can lead to the employee being fired.
Working Bridges aims to reverse the downward spiral by matching employees with resources.
According to information sheets from Working Bridges, workers earning between $8 and $18 an hour — described as earning between minimum and self-sufficiency wages — face economic and sometimes personal challenges.
Two-thirds of Windham County work at pay rates in this range, said Graff.
Strategies such as shifting management practices or changing employee benefits can help reduce these challenges.
Workforce turnover, hiring, and training cost a lot, said Pease. Bridges can reduce these costs for employers.
The UWWC has incrementally rolled out Working Bridges in small pieces though workshops and trainings for local employers.
Last year, the UWWC was one of five organizations to receive funding through the Entergy-funded Windham County Economic Development Program. The United Way used the $65,000 it received to fully launch bridges and hire Elizabeth Raposa as its resource coordinator.
Raposa will spend time at each participating job site speaking with employees, identifying needs, and linking those employees to the necessary agencies, services, or resources.
Graff and Pease said the resource coordinator is key to the program. This person can devote the time to identifying employees’ personal barriers that other business departments may not have. The coordinator also has a network that includes human services providers.
The program provides a bridge between the private sector and human service agencies, said Graff.
Raposa said that one local employer has agreed to contract with the program. The goal is to have three more employers signed on by the end of the summer. The UWWC has also launched an employer workgroup that meets bi-monthly at the Windham Regional Career Center. Its next meeting is June 10, from 9 to 11 a.m.
The United Way of Chittenden County developed the program in 2006. Although nearly a decade old, Working Bridges went statewide only about two years ago, said Graff. The number of resource coordinators has gone from one to six in that time.
Resources: the difference between stability and instability
Discussions around economic development often center on raising wages, attracting highly skilled workers, or attracting new businesses. They rarely strategize how to help those living an unstable life of fewer resources to a more stable life with more resources.
Pease reminded the audience at the Latchis Theatre to keep an open mind when viewing people from an economic strata different from their own.
People carry all shapes and sizes of mental models about many things, including class, said Pease, who trains organizations across the country in the Working Bridges program and as an “aha! consultant” with the aha! Process based in Texas.
The aha! Process provides “workshops, publications, and consulting services to help improve lives and build sustainable success in communities, schools, and higher education” by looking at such issues. Founder Ruby K. Payne Ph.D. is the author of A Framework for Understanding Poverty: A Cognitive Approach.
“Every person’s model is valid, but sometimes we don’t have all the pieces for a complete picture,” Pease said.
Have you ever seen a young woman pushing a stroller and thought, ‘She’s not going anywhere in life?’” Pease asked. “Thirty years ago, I was that young woman.”
Pease, who has an associate degree in accounting from Community College of Vermont, said she left home at age 12. She kept herself fed through “drugs and sex.” She raised six children and two of her siblings. She said her three older children have experienced homelessness three times.
Living in poverty means more than not having enough money, she said. Poverty represents a lack of resources including emotional, family, society, mental health, spiritual, educational, and personal safety.
Pease explained some of the differences that go deeper than income between people living in poverty and those living in the middle class.
A family living in poverty worries about things like transportation, job, children, health care, and time spent working with state or human services agencies, she said.
One crucial piece to remember is that the aspects of this family’s life are strung together like a spider web, Pease continued.
“No matter which thread I pull on, the entire web will start to collapse,” she said.
The car breaks down, the wage earners can’t get to work, jobs are lost, things crumble, she said.
A middle-class family’s life is more like a pie, she continued. Pull out a piece, like job or transportation, and although it will hurt, the pie won’t fall apart.
People in poverty and people in the middle class also view time differently, she said. People in poverty focus on the present. People in the middle class anticipate the future.
While people living in the middle class are achievement-motivated, people living in poverty are motivated by relationships, Pease said.
“Relationships become the trump card,” said Pease.
Houses, personal items, or cars can disappear in a second, she said. At the end of the day, relationships remain.
Pease continued, questions people in the middle class might ask about food are, do I like it? Is it healthy? People in poverty ask, is there enough? Am I still hungry?
Money for people in poverty is to be used and spent. It belongs to the community rather than one individual to pay for expenses like rent, heat, and food, she said. In middle-class families, money is to be managed — again, for the future.
Differences among separate economic classes also exist in the areas of humor, language, and the level of how attuned one might be to non-verbal communication.
“Watchers are always watching,” said Pease of the survival instincts many people in poverty develop.
All of us, regardless of class, carry what Pease calls “the hidden rules” of the environment in which they were raised. These rules can govern everything from how someone celebrates a birthday to how someone spends money. In moments of emotional stress, people will revert to operating by these hidden rules.
People don’t move from one economic class to another in a straight line, she said. It’s a series of steps back and forth. Managers can’t expect employees to hear a lesson, a new habit, or a new expectation once and be done with it.
Sometimes change is less about transformation and more about adaptation, she said.
“If you are right handed, you reap the benefits of being in the norm every day,” Pease said. “Lefties have to tweak things every day.”
Employers looking to help bring stability to all members of their workforces must remember this, she said.
“Just because my income increases does not make my left handedness — my perspectives or hidden rules — go away and you have to manage it everyday,” Pease said.