November 13, 2012

It's hard to be poor after a disaster

Expert: Stabilizing the lives of people with few resources may require big changes in public aid.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE - Maine families living in poverty are not only more likely to be the victims of a home fire, but they also have a more difficult time recovering from them.

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Waterville firefighters battle a blaze that left Jeff and Janet White homeless in August.

Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

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Janet White wipes away tears as she watches her apartment burn in August.

Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Stabilizing those whose lives are torn apart by a fire, flood or other natural disaster, including victims of superstorm Sandy, would require a massive restructuring of the public aid system, according to Charles Colgan, a professor of public policy and management at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.

One Waterville family living in poverty is still feeling the effects of a fire that left them temporarily homeless in August.

Even before the blaze consumed the Spruce Street apartment rented by newlyweds Jeff and Janet White, they were struggling.

Jeff White, 37, a carpenter by trade, can't work because of injuries stemming from a car accident 15 year ago when his back was broken. He's used to working with his hands, hunting and fishing. Now, he's often frustrated by the injury.

"This isn't me -- just sit around the house all day long," he said. "I tried to rake some leaves and I was on my back for three days. I go out and putter for a little bit during the day and when I get hurting I come back in."

Janet White, 32, has worked only briefly since she first got pregnant in eighth grade. She's spent most of her life raising children, who now range in age from 4 to 17. One son is receiving counseling for emotional and mental problems.

The Whites receive benefits totaling about $2,300 a month from an array of public aid programs, including Section 8 housing, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Supplemental Security Income for the disabled.

A recent report from the University of Maine found that nearly 15 percent of Mainers are living in poverty, defined as earning annually less than $21,200 for a family of four, or $10,400 for an individual.

After getting married on the Fourth of July, the Whites were making small steps to get ahead. Janet White had begun saving toward a driving course so that she could get her license. Jeff White had scheduled a surgery on his back so that he could go back to work, where he could make as much as $25 an hour.


They didn't know it, but the Whites were at an increased risk of having their home burn down, just by being poor.

Socioeconomic factors are the very best predictors of increased fire risk, according to an analysis published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The report says fires are two to three times as common in areas with high levels of poverty.

One reason is that poor families often live in older houses that are more susceptible to fire risks, such as faulty wiring.

A faulty wire is exactly what caused the fire that destroyed everything the White's own, with the exception of a few wall hangings and Jeff White's cellphone.

Immediately after the fire, the family spent two weeks in a hotel room. They focused on their immediate needs, such as clothing, the next meal and funding for the next night's stay.

At that point, the Whites were in the "crisis" stage, according to Colgan.

"You get a crisis like this and you have so little in the way of spare resources in terms of money and time, you have to tend to the most immediate things," he said.

The Whites are also typical in that, during this stage, they received a large amount of help from the community, with a combination of donations from individuals and charitable organizations paying for the hotel room.

(Continued on page 2)

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