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Health and well-being in Mingo County: where we stand now

31 Mar

Yesterday was publication day for an important and interesting study on health and well-being in America that’s published each year. It’s the County Health Rankings report.

The Rankings provide 50 state reports, ranking each county within the 50 states according to its health outcomes and the multiple health factors that determine a county’s health. Each county receives a summary rank for its health outcomes and health factors and also for the four different types of health factors: health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors, and the physical environment.

So how did we do?  The Mingo County page is here.

There are 55 counties in West Virginia.  Mingo County has an overall ranking of 54th out of 55 for health and well-being in the state.  We come in at 54th for health outcomes and 53rd for health factors.  Particularly distressing is the ranking of 55 out of 55 for “morbidity,” which basically means “quality of life,” especially measuring occurances of disease, disorders, and illness. 

We’re ranked 50th for health behaviors, 55th for availability of clinical care, 48th for social-economic factors that affect health, and 26th for quality of physical environment. 

The work we do here at Christian Help has a lot to do with addressing this frustrating state of things.  Certainly, anything we can do to help provide adequate food, clothing, dental care, and financial help for utilities and life’s other basic needs for people who struggle to provide these things for themselves has a positive impact on health.

More specifically, Christian Help’s transit program makes a significant contribution to the health of low-income people in this county.  Every single weekday, we’re busy getting folks to doctor’s appointments, hospitals, pharmacies, and drug stores.  Many of them would have no other way to access these resources without the free transportation we offer.  They tell us that frequently.

These frustrating health statistics provide even more incentive to keep doing what we’re doing, so that we can help the people we serve avoid being among these numbers.  Thank you for helping us do that.

“Losing Our Way”

28 Mar

Over the weekend, the New York Times published the last regular column by its longtime columnist Bob Herbert.  I was going to post a small snippet here to whet your appetite, then provide a link for the full piece online — but I couldn’t select just one small piece over the rest.  The whole thing is a must-read.  Here it is, in full:

“Losing Our Way”

by Bob Herbert  (March 25, 2011)

So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home.

Welcome to America in the second decade of the 21st century. An army of long-term unemployed workers is spread across the land, the human fallout from the Great Recession and long years of misguided economic policies. Optimism is in short supply. The few jobs now being created too often pay a pittance, not nearly enough to pry open the doors to a middle-class standard of living.

Arthur Miller, echoing the poet Archibald MacLeish, liked to say that the essence of America was its promises. That was a long time ago. Limitless greed, unrestrained corporate power and a ferocious addiction to foreign oil have led us to an era of perpetual war and economic decline. Young people today are staring at a future in which they will be less well off than their elders, a reversal of fortune that should send a shudder through everyone.

The U.S. has not just misplaced its priorities. When the most powerful country ever to inhabit the earth finds it so easy to plunge into the horror of warfare but almost impossible to find adequate work for its people or to properly educate its young, it has lost its way entirely.

Nearly 14 million Americans are jobless and the outlook for many of them is grim. Since there is just one job available for every five individuals looking for work, four of the five are out of luck. Instead of a land of opportunity, the U.S. is increasingly becoming a place of limited expectations. A college professor in Washington told me this week that graduates from his program were finding jobs, but they were not making very much money, certainly not enough to think about raising a family.

There is plenty of economic activity in the U.S., and plenty of wealth. But like greedy children, the folks at the top are seizing virtually all the marbles. Income and wealth inequality in the U.S. have reached stages that would make the third world blush. As the Economic Policy Institute has reported, the richest 10 percent of Americans received an unconscionable 100 percent of the average income growth in the years 2000 to 2007, the most recent extended period of economic expansion.

Americans behave as if this is somehow normal or acceptable. It shouldn’t be, and didn’t used to be. Through much of the post-World War II era, income distribution was far more equitable, with the top 10 percent of families accounting for just a third of average income growth, and the bottom 90 percent receiving two-thirds. That seems like ancient history now.

The current maldistribution of wealth is also scandalous. In 2009, the richest 5 percent claimed 63.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. The overwhelming majority, the bottom 80 percent, collectively held just 12.8 percent.

This inequality, in which an enormous segment of the population struggles while the fortunate few ride the gravy train, is a world-class recipe for social unrest. Downward mobility is an ever-shortening fuse leading to profound consequences.

A stark example of the fundamental unfairness that is now so widespread was in The New York Times on Friday under the headline: “G.E.’s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether.” Despite profits of $14.2 billion — $5.1 billion from its operations in the United States — General Electric did not have to pay any U.S. taxes last year.

As The Times’s David Kocieniewski reported, “Its extraordinary success is based on an aggressive strategy that mixes fierce lobbying for tax breaks and innovative accounting that enables it to concentrate its profits offshore.”

G.E. is the nation’s largest corporation. Its chief executive, Jeffrey Immelt, is the leader of President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. You can understand how ordinary workers might look at this cozy corporate-government arrangement and conclude that it is not fully committed to the best interests of working people.

Overwhelming imbalances in wealth and income inevitably result in enormous imbalances of political power. So the corporations and the very wealthy continue to do well. The employment crisis never gets addressed. The wars never end. And nation-building never gets a foothold here at home.

New ideas and new leadership have seldom been more urgently needed.

Why they deserve it

25 Mar

We do this work here at Christian Help because people need the help and they deserve the help.  But it’s very easy to imagine someone responding to that statement by challenging it: “Why do they deserve it?  They got themselves into the situation they’re in now, and they can get themselves out of it.”

Why do they deserve it?

Because they’re human beings.  They don’t want their poverty any more than you or I would want it.

So why don’t they do something about it themselves?

Many can’t.  First of all, there are the disabled and chronically unhealthy.  Did you know that health statistics here in southern West Virginia are among the worst in the entire United States?  Did you know there are many places in this region, in this very county, where safe drinking water is difficult to find?  Of course, poverty and poor health are intimately connected, so where there’s lots of poverty, there’s lots of poor health, and that means lots of people for whom it’s very hard or impossible to work steadily. 

But there are issues beyond poor health and disability.  Central Appalachia is a place with few opportunities for quality education, personal development, and decent work, and that has been the case for many decades.  Many people who live here have received a raw deal from American society, the American economy, American politics, and life itself.  No, they’re not the only poor people in the country, but poverty is concentrated here unlike few other places in our nation. 

Again and again, we hear the comments from the student groups who come here to visit and serve: These are the conditions of a third-world nation.  How could this be happening in America? 

Many of them could do something about their situations, if they were living in another place, in a different situation, or had a different set of experiences that has brought them to where they are now.

Many, many people here grow up in families where academic achievement is understood as having little value, where an expectation of going to college, even an option of going to college, is completely absent.  Sadly, setting a kid’s sights on success and on preparation for college is often not a priority even in some schools in our region.    

Another element in this mix:  The culture of the region is highly, intensely family centered.  Many people, even many young people, couldn’t conceive of moving elsewhere for better opportunities.  Did you know that burying deceased loved ones on one’s own property is a common practice here?  Show me a person whose family is buried on their own land, and I’ll show you someone who has no intention of going anywhere, and would understandably find it very hard to, even if they wanted to. 

Are these things that could be overcome?  Could someone succeed and thrive in life despite these facts, if they really wanted to?  Yes, they could.  But shouldn’t modest success, and even basic survival, be accessible to more than just the very strongest, most resilient, and most determined among us? 

Are there deadbeats and lazy people among those who are poor?  There sure are.  I even suppose that they’re occasionally recieving help from Christian Help.  But as our founder Sr. Brendan Conlon often says, The only way to be sure we’re never taken advantage of by clients is never to help anybody.  If we end up helping a few lazy people in order to relieve some burdens of people who really are in need of help that they couldn’t get any other way, I can live with that.

Service from St. Louis

17 Mar

Since Saturday, we’ve been hosting 14 students from St. Louis University here at Christian Help / ABLE Families.   Throughout the week, they’ve been staying here with us and doing work of service with both agencies here in Mingo County.  

Each day, part of the group has been visiting various Head Start programs throughout the county, doing literacy related work, which is ABLE Families’ bag.  (Visit the ABLE Families blog to see some photos of that important work going on.) 

Another part of the group has been doing a variety of jobs related to Christian Help’s work, the biggests of which has been the construction of a much-needed wheelchair ramp at the home of a Christian Help client who lives far down into the hollers of this region.  (It’s about a half hour drive from here, through several miles of narrow roads winding through the mountains and valleys.) 

I visited their work site today and snapped some photos of these young men and women hard at work, with the help of a local carpenter we’ve enlisted to guide the job.  I also got a few of the neighborhood in which they’re working. 

“We’re talking about ‘us'”: Charleston Gazette op-ed

7 Mar

An op-ed column that I wrote appeared in Saturday’s Charleston Gazette.  Here’s the full text (which is online here).

“Hardship not limited to the lazy”

by Barry Hudock

Sometimes the debate about funding for welfare and other social service programs tends to sound like a lot of hand-wringing about what to do about “those people,” the ones who screwed up so bad or are so lazy, they need “our” help.

When I read the stats presented in a brand new study on food hardship, I was frustrated, but not surprised. More than 22 percent of West Virginians reported in 2010 not having enough money to buy food that they or their family needed at some point during the prior 12 months. That ranks the state at 11th place in food hardship rates — not good, but in good company.

Here in the southern part of the state, things are worse. The state’s most severe food hardship is in the Third Congressional District, with a rate of 24.4 percent. One out of every four people here finds it a challenge to afford enough food for their families. The district ranks in the top 12 percent throughout the nation in food hardship rates. Again, not a good place to be, but clearly we’re not alone.

The national food hardship study was published Wednesday by the Food Research and Action Center, which used information provided by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.

The new data documents what we see every day at Christian Help of Mingo County — just how much people are struggling in our communities. It’s not something that happens to “other” people, or just the “lazy” ones. It happens to a lot of us.

Like many organizations, we provide a food pantry to help meet the needs where government assistance leaves off. We also provide a well-stocked clothing store that’s free to people in need. We give free rides to medical appointments and grocery stores, and financial help for emergency situations. As a result, we have a strong sense of the need that’s out there, and I can say that demand for our service was huge during 2010.

The struggle to balance budgets is big news these days, and there’s no doubt it’s a challenge. I do not envy those who must make decisions about what and how much to cut. But I’m deeply concerned about potential cuts to low-income assistance programs proposed by Congress for the FY 2011 budget. I hope our elected officials will protect programs that help low-income families.

We can’t balance the budget on the backs of those struggling to survive, because we’re not talking about a small, marginalized group of lazy outsiders. We’re talking about many who are hard-working, well-meaning people who sometimes find themselves needing help they’d rather not need. We’re talking about “us.”

Hudock is executive director of Christian Help of Mingo County.

A lot of people served, a lot of love given!

17 Feb

At tonight’s meeting  of the Christian Help board of directors, I’ll present some 2010 year-in-review figures that offer a helpful picture of  the service we provided through the year.   I’ll share them with you, too.  As you can see, there’s a lot of good going on here!

Numbers of clients helped through Direct Aid (financial assistance):

Electric bills     674

Natural gas bills     7

Other home heating fuels     9

Water bills     87

Rent     29

Medicine     90

Glasses     31

Eye exams     14

Dental     127

Gasoline     1,332

Auto repairs     70

Home repairs     79

Clothing, personal, household, etc     118

Total Direct Aid clients     2,753

Food pantry clients

Households served           2,757

Individuals served           5,068

Transit figures

Passenger trips         10,499

Miles of service       102,496

Total clients signed in at front desk through the year     8,001

(figure includes visits to clothing store, food pantry, furniture warehouse, burn-out room, and Sr. Therese’s office—note: some don’t bother to sign in)

Remember, the community of Kermit that we call home has an official population of about 200.  Clearly we’re serve a population far beond the borders of the town.

Most of this work happens through donations from people like you.  Please consider making a gift today, either by mail (Christian Help, P.O. Box 1257, Kermit, WV 25674), or by clicking the DONATE NOW button in the sidebar on the right.  Thanks for considering it!

Feeding Mingo County

16 Feb

Here are some photos of a recent delivery of food to our pantry here at Christian Help.  That’s Sr. Therese, our director of aid, in the denim jacket, keeping things running smoothly.  Some of the other folks are our staff, and many others are local volounteers who generously show up to help unload when we get big deliveries like this.

The food that we stock in our pantry mostly comes through helpful collaborations with Huntington Food Bank and the national organization Feeding America.  We receive a delivery once a month, and all of the food that comes is distributed to families living in poverty here in Mingo County.