By Elizabeth Rose
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Poverty exists in the local Greater Newburyport. It isn’t going away easily and it isn’t solved through just giving charity.
That’s the message a group of local social service professionals shared during a recent forum hosted by Newburyport’s new discussion group, Local Poverty Matters.
Poverty is more than a shortage of income, the panelists said, it’s an inability “to participate in activities of normal living, the inability to access important resources and it is perpetuated by social divisions that separate us.”
The discussion group was started by Michael Sandberg, co-president of Pennies for Poverty and past leader of Immigration Matters, a similar monthly discussion on immigration in America. It plans to host monthly forums that will examine how charity can both help and hurt people living in poverty.
Wednesday’s program, the first of the series, was attended by about 75 people, many of whom were also social service professionals.
They received a first-hand overview of poverty in the local area from keynote speaker Ingrid Cyros. Cyros, executive director of the Hugh Doyle Resource Center, located on Prince Place in Newburyport, informed the gathering that 6 percent of Newburyport residents live below the poverty line.
To put a face to this group, she described a population of single mothers without another adult present, elderly living on a fixed income and the disabled and sick who are assigned to a life of poverty through no fault of their own.
Cyros said that over the past 10 years the North Shore has seen a 20 percent rise in poverty spurred on by the uncertain job market and rising housing costs. This rate is “growing at a faster rate and with greater numbers than other communities,” she said.
Cyros was joined at the podium by a local resident who she said “carries great assets and shows amazing resourcefulness and tenacity.”
Jane Doe, as the woman wished to be called, recounted that in 2001 she left an abusive marriage several states away. She had only $100, her two toddlers and all her life’s stuff crammed into her little car. Today she still struggles with anxiety, medical and learning disabilities but she has found help, support and a community in Newburyport and Amesbury, which has helped her to stay afloat and even graduate from Northern Essex Community College.
“My kids have big dreams. They plan to get some scholarships to become a doctor, an engineer and also an NBA star,” she said.
According to Cyros, Doe was demonstrating the role that “hope” can play as one of the three cornerstones of anti-poverty work.
“‘Hope’ in the sense portrayed as vision; a person, or an organization or a community standing for something, having big hopes and dreams. Faith is the tenacious pursuit of hope,” she said.
Cyros said that charity, hope and faith are the cornerstones of her anti-poverty work. She separated her meaning of charity from one defined by author and community activist Robert Lupton, author of the 2012 book “Toxic Charity.” Lupton maintains in his book that much of charity, although well-intentioned, “exacts an unintended toll on another’s dignity.” He states that decades of free aid from well-meaning people and organizations produces an entitlement mentality and eroded a spirit of entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency.
To expand on that definition, Cyros said she believes that “to be charitable is to create an environment in which people take responsibility for each other in ways that constantly release the potential of individuals.”
“None of us are self-sufficient…..All of life is interdependent,” she said.
The Rev. Oliver Jones of St. Paul’s Church talked of the hard work and obstacles that the poor face once the “bottom has fallen out.”
“It is hard work to be poor,” Jones said. “To get food stamps you have to go to Lawrence. By public bus it takes three hours. But first the person has to go to their locker in Saugus to get the important identification papers. Their life is scattered here and there. The little details that would be nothing for us confound them because of the logistics of accomplishing these things.”
Gail Fayre, chief medical officer of Anna Jaques Hospital, said that the emotional issues of separateness are as toxic to poor people as the lack of resources.
“It is important to address the separateness that we keep people at who are of lower socio-economic status,” Fayre said. “In a program like Same Café [a Denver Colorado eatery], everyone eats together regardless of their ability to pay a large bill.”
Lyndsey Haight, executive director of Our Neighbors’ Table in Amesbury, said that in her four years at the food bank and meals program, poverty is getting worse.
“Our Neighbors’ Table was emergency assistance when it began and it is now a lifeline,” she said.
“The middle class is now moving into poverty. It is estimated that a family of four needs to make $72,000 a year to provide the basics,” Haight said. “Yet $23,850 is the federal level set for who we are serving. This is a huge discrepancy.”
The next meeting of Local Poverty Matters will be on Wednesday, April 2 from 7 to 8 p.m. in the lower assembly room at First Religious Society, 26 Pleasant St., Newburyport. The executive director of Boston’s Walk for Hunger will lead the discussion. It is free and open to the public. For more information about Pennies for Poverty, visit www.penniesforpoverty.org.