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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.

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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.

“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.

Considering the cost

20 Nov

A column that I wrote appears on the op-ed page of today’s Charleston Gazette.  It’s on the proposed AEP rate hike and how it will affect low-income families in southern West Virginia.  We serve hundreds of such families here at Christian Help, and thinking about how such a hike would affect them gives me a knot in my stomach. 

My column is available on the Gazette website here.