Upper Valley families confront rural poverty

by Charlie Rafkin | 11/14/13 7:02pm

by Madison Pauly and Madison Pauly / The Dartmouth

Destiny finished her opiate binge, left the bathroom and returned to her high school class. Her head felt light. She put it down — just for a second. The teacher did not notice. She went to her next class, and then another.

But something was wrong. She was too woozy. Destiny had taken drugs in school before, and it had never felt like this. She sat up straight, pushed out her chair and walked to the nurse.

Sirens, lights, a hospital and a breathing tube. The doctors pumped her stomach and sent her home. At 15, Destiny had overdosed on opiates. She is proud that she did not tell the police who had done drugs with her that day.

It was not long before Destiny was kicked out of high school. She said she and her mother were evicted from their government-supported apartment once word spread of Destiny’s overdose. They are homeless and live in a friend’s home for now. Her mother fills out housing applications during the day.

Just a week ago — over half a year since she was kicked out of high school for the drug overdose — Destiny began attending classes at The Family Place in Norwich, an organization that provides aid to families in the Upper Valley.

Destiny’s old family friend, Dakota, is also attending class at The Family Place. Dakota is 21 with a husband and three young boys — all of whom, she remarks, have names beginning with J. Her oldest son dressed up as Batman for Halloween, as he always does. Dakota was planning to wear cat ears for Halloween, but her children lost them.

When faced with the decision to work and have her family’s welfare benefits slashed, or attend class at The Family Place and squeak by on benefits, Dakota chose the latter. She hopes to start college in January.

The Upper Valley As “Microcosm”

Not far from Baker-Berry Library’s towering spire, thousands are facing similar struggles. In West Fairlee, a Vermont town less than 20 miles from Hanover, 24.8 percent of the town’s 652 inhabitants live below the federal poverty line, according to Census data. The towns of Claremont, Corinth and Newport all suffer poverty rates of 15 percent or higher. The Claremont region has a median income of just $39,670, and only 14 percent of adults have earned a college diploma, The Washington Post reported.

There are, of course, many affluent towns and counties in the Upper Valley. Norwich’s median household income, for example, is $101,250, almost double the national rate. In fact, New Hampshire’s Gini coefficient, a standard economic measure of income inequality, is quite low relative to those of other states, indicating that the state has a more equitable distribution of income. (Vermont’s is slightly higher, but still well below the national rate.)

Statewide, New Hampshire has an 8 percent poverty rate, while Vermont’s is 11.4 percent. Both figures fall below the national rate of 14.3 percent.

New Hampshire also had the lowest poverty rate in the U.S. in 2011 and 2012.

This low overall rate does not cleave evenly between races. Over the past 12 months, just 7.5 percent of white New Hampshire residents had incomes below the poverty line, but 23.5 percent of black residents, 15.8 percent of Native American residents and 17.4 percent of Hispanic residents fell below this level, according to the latest Census estimates.

The disparity between Norwich’s affluence and West Fairlee’s poverty is a “microcosm” of statewide trends, said Erika Argersinger, public policy director of the Children’s Alliance of New Hampshire.

Relying on such encouraging statewide figures alone can obscure the dreadful poverty that some Upper Valley communities endure.

“When you have those small pockets, it’s easy for it to get sort of washed out when you look at the average across the state,” Argersinger said. “You have pretty wealthy areas of the Upper Valley, and then you have more poor areas of the Upper Valley, so when you look at it overall, the Upper Valley, you know, looks pretty well off, but what we know is that there are these pockets of deeper poverty.”

The Upper Valley’s most affluent communities are generally located near Hanover: since Dartmouth is the area’s largest employer, communities close to Dartmouth are, on balance, wealthier. But as Dakota and Destiny’s situations demonstrate — the two are from Lebanon — there is more need than statistics suggest. Even Hanover is not completely bracketed off from poverty.

”It’s here,” Hanover town manager Julia Griffin said. “We see folks who need welfare assistance, who are trying really to hold onto homes.”

The town provided over $80,000 in grants to community agencies that served the town last year, as well as over $10,000 in direct welfare assistance to residents, Griffin said. She noted, however, that Hanover’s high property costs deter many poor community members from moving to the town, and that Lebanon’s welfare budget is much greater.

The high poverty rate in some parts of the Upper Valley is tied to some community members’ lack of marketable skills and the lack of transportation infrastructure the region. The onset of the recession in 2008 also contributed to the community’s economic instability, said Sara Kobylenski, executive director of the Upper Valley Haven, a local shelter.

“Our model of capitalism economically has worked better than any of the others, but it still has people that don’t come to the table at an equal footing with others,” she said.

As Dakota and Destiny’s stories illustrate, most poverty in the area is generational and not precipitated by some crisis. There is a common myth that welfare recipients are lazy, but people receiving government assistance work hard just to survive, said Tonya McMurray, a mental health counselor at The Family Place.

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator, the hourly wage one person must earn to support him or herself in Grafton County is $9.19, almost $2 above the federal minimum wage of $7.25. For one adult supporting a family of two adults and three children, the living wage spikes up to $22.90 each hour. Before leaving the workforce to preserve her family’s welfare benefits, Dakota worked at Dunkin Donuts for $8.75 an hour and as a phone operator for $9.25 an hour — nowhere near enough to support her husband and three children.

“[The minimum wage] has not kept pace with increasing cost of living,” Argersinger said. “Many states have decoupled their minimum wage from the federal level and then gone above the federal level. New Hampshire has not.”

The Haven volunteer peer mentor Cherokee Boley, who stayed at the shelter three years ago, said talk of improvement in the economy feels like someone is “fixing the books” about the rural poor. As a result, the jobless recovery post-recession has led to frustration toward the government.

“Faith has to be restored in America. It has to be,” Boley said.

Based on her interactions with community leaders, Griffin said she felt the area’s economic situation was worsening.

”There’s a broader, deeper swath of people who need direct food aid now than 24 months ago,” she said. “An extended recession has taken its toll on this region.”

And there is no clear end to this trend in sight. The combination of the federal government shutdown, significant cutsto the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programenacted this fall and the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration earlier this year reduced the local economy’s growth prospects.

New Hampshire had the lowest poverty rate in the country for families with children for many years. But in 2012, that rate increased more than that of any other state, according to data collected by the Carsey Institute, a poverty policy think tank at the University of New Hampshire. Beth Mattingly ’96, who conducted the study, said she was unsure what caused the increase.

Argersinger said the increase was emblematic of a long-term trend.

“While obviously the recession accelerated an increase in child poverty across the country, the trend that we’re seeing in New Hampshire started before the recession,” she said. Argersinger cited cuts to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program as one factor that contributed to the increase in poverty for families with children, noting that the changes affected over 300 families. Although the Children’s Alliance successfully lobbied the New Hampshire state government to reinstate the once-terminated Unemployed Parents Program, the initiative remains unfunded.

Childhood poverty is “the single greatest factor that can hobble a child’s development,” as it is linked with lower future salaries and poorer academic achievement, Argersinger said.

Dakota underlined the importance of future education for her children, remarking that her own mother had always pushed her to succeed in school.

“I want my kids to have something they’ll be proud of,” Dakota said. “’Cause I’m not proud of just a G.E.D.”

“Institutional narrowness” or a “reciprocal relationship”?

With so much need close by, Dartmouth confronts the challenge of supporting its community even as it pursues its educational mission.

Dartmouth’s impact is not only concentrated in the surrounding community: the College is the largest employer in most of the roughly 50 towns that comprise the Upper Valley. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center employs around 6,000 people — twice as many as the College itself.

“Dartmouth’s primary regional impact is through medical services,” college historian Jere Daniell ’55 said. “It’s the hospital that’s made the difference [to] the introduction of the community.”

But the employment Dartmouth grants is a double-edged sword for community members: housing prices are steep near Hanover because the faculty employed by the College can shell out more for proximity.

As a result, workers who cannot afford a Hanover home are relegated to the outer reaches of the Valley, and must budget in the high transportation costs that accompany a longer commute.

Mandy, who is also taking classes at The Family Place and has faced many periods of homelessness, said she was forced to leave her job at McDonald’s when she could no longer catch a ride with a coworker.

“I actually wanted to follow my mom, because she worked at McDonald’s all her life, and she absolutely loved it,” Mandy said. “So I was gonna follow her, and it didn’t turn out that way.”

Over 60 years ago, College President John Sloan Dickey founded the Tucker Foundation as the spiritual center of the community. Since then, Tucker has spearheaded Dartmouth’s engagement with its broader community, now funding 28 projects that benefit over 50 partnerships. Tucker programming officer Tracy Dustin-Eichler said Tucker “strives for the ideal of a reciprocal relationship” with the community.

Through Tucker, community members gave over 40,000 hours to not-for-credit service work last year, said Helen Damon-Moore, service and educational programs director at Tucker. Tucker’s budget is over $2 million, including staff salaries, and 60 percent of the student body participates in Tucker programs each year.

Cody Cushing ’14, student director of DREAM, a Tucker mentorship program that links students with mentees in the Upper Valley,said he recognized that not every mentor was equally involved in the program.

“We are working on finding ways to get mentors into the community and showing them what that means,” he said.

Both Dakota and Destiny were linked with DREAM mentors when they were children living in the same apartment complex. They are both still in touch with their mentors, and Dakota said she hopes to secure a spot in the program for her eldest son. But Dakota and Destiny said that there were significant class divisions among the mentees.

“[The other children] called us ‘Temp Kids,’” Dakota said, describing an epithet that referred to the apartment complex on Templeton Street, where she grew up.

By high school, a number of distractions could prevent robust bonds from developing between mentors and mentees, Cushing said. He also cited several examples of students in the community who had been supported by their mentors.

In addition to Tucker, The Rockefeller Center, the Hopkins Center, Greek organizations and other institutions sponsor service work in the Upper Valley. The Tuck School of Business also emphasizes community work, and two Tuck fellows sit on the board of directors at the Haven. Duncan McDougall Tu’87 founded the Children’s Literacy Foundation, which backs literacy programs for vulnerable children in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Both Dustin-Eichler and Damon-Moore emphasized that, through service, Dartmouth students learn from the Upper Valley and enrich life on campus.

“The community brings many assets to Dartmouth,” Damon-Moore said. “This is an exchange, not just a helping of the community.”

Science and technology outreach director Nancy Serrell and science outreach coordinator Sara Riordan cited the College’s GK12 program as an example of reciprocal engagement with the community. Through GK12, science graduate students visit schools in the Upper Valley and discuss their research. While educating students in the community, the graduate students hone their ability to communicate — a critical skill for a nation that is becoming increasingly scientifically illiterate.

Unlike some Tucker-sponsored service projects, this program is directly “integrated with our educational mission,” Serrell said.

Some faculty have sought to link service to scholarship through community-based learning initiatives, through which community service is coupled with academic work in the classroom. Students at the College commit over 14,000 hours of community based learning each year, Damon-Moore said. Environmental studies professor Terry Osborne, who led a community-based learning course that worked with COVER, a housing repair organization, said these classes were “the highlight of [his] teaching career,” as this type of learning enriches both the academic work and the service.

Ellie Pearlman ’15, who worked for ASPIRE, another Tucker program for children with autism, and is taking a community-based learning course, said the phrase “the Dartmouth bubble” marginalizes the work that students undertake in the Upper Valley and the real community that exists at the College. She added that the student body does seem sequestered off from its surroundings.

“The fact that you’re moving at like 100 miles per hour every day makes ‘the bubble’ more of a real thing,” she said.

This term, Pearlman is taking a community-based learning course that visits area prisons and rehabilitation centers. One student presentation stressed the connection between the substance abuse the course investigated and alcoholism on Webster Avenue, a clear example of service helping students gain perspective on their own community.

Despite tangible measures of engagement, many community members said they observed a lack of deep engagement with the Upper Valley in the student body. The Dartmouth community is generous, especially when students rally behind a cause such as the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth or the Day of Caring, Griffin said. But she worries that the daily business of college life might make deeper engagement more elusive.

Rural poverty’s invisibility — the natural result of Hanover’s being cloistered away from the most severely affected areas in the Upper Valley — contributes to the student body’s relative disinterestedness. Some students may mistakenly believe the rest of the Upper Valley is just as wealthy as Hanover.

“I have had several students who thought that CVS in Hanover to Occom Pond was the Upper Valley,” Damon-Moore said.

Geography professor Mona Domosh agreed that the region’s class and racial divides were hidden from Dartmouth, while Sarah Blum, volunteer coordinator of COVER, noted that urban poverty is simply “louder.” Because mass media highlight the urban poor, particularly minorities, students may be unaware of census data indicating that most poor Americans are white living in rural areas, public policy professor Charles Wheelan said.

“There is no equivalent of ‘The Wire’ for rural poverty,” he said.

Damon-Moore postulated that rural poverty, however acute, is not as “sexy” as urban poverty. She noted that students might even have more awareness of international suffering than the poverty just miles away, but said that Dartmouth’s historical focus on international issues does not preclude action closer to home.

Molly Thornton ’14, a Tucker student director who participated in numerous Tucker programs, said she had observed that some students see international needs as more “glamorous” than the needs of Upper Valley residents.

It boils down to proximity — students have few reasons to embark on a 30-minute drive to Grafton, where one might discover residencies not quite as posh as those within walking distance. And just as commuting costs make finding Upper Valley jobs difficult, so too the logistics of transportation make organizing service projects a challenge.

But ultimately, community members stressed, the College is bound to its geography.

A Future of “Synergy”

With Phil Hanlon assuming the reigns as College president, Dartmouth community members are optimistic that he will emphasize a deeper connection to the Upper Valley.

Daniell said he expects Hanlon to make a substantial commitment to the Upper Valley, citing Hanlon’s appearance at a United Way meeting within weeks of arriving in Hanover this summer. Hanlon’s support of Greek life might also result in greater support for charities in the community, since Greek organizations have historically played an outsized role in Dartmouth’s fundraising.

The most visible impact thus far of the College’s yearlong strategic planning initiatives has been a newfound emphasis on experiential learning, which Hanlon said would include community-based learning at the faculty meeting. Action-based learning programs director Gail Gentes has championed her husband’s goal, leading many to predict that more courses will feature community engagement.

Osborne said he would support beginning a discussion about offering academic credit for service work in the community. Mattingly said she would only support offering academic credit for service work if students also process their experiences back in the classroom.

Emphasis on experiential learning may also allow for more “synergy” among the currently disconnected community outreach programs at the College, Dustin-Eichler said.

“I hope to see maybe more connectedness between all the ways in which we’re serving the community,” she said.

Once a month, a council on service and engagement meets at Tucker to discuss the College’s plans for service. Damon-Moore said she would like to include community members and faculty with an eye toward coordinating engagement efforts further — a “community-partner think tank” of sorts.

Such efforts might build on last year’s symposium on poverty, which brought the Upper Valley’s struggles into focus for students, Blum said.

But too much engagement brings its own perils. Damon-Moore said she hopes students who make use of Hanlon’s proposed Innovation Center will partner with the community. She cautioned against imposing service on the Upper Valley without considering the specific needs of each organization.

“Sometimes, we’re the elephant sitting on the community, rather than working in partnership with the community, so I would like to see more joint planning with the community about how we could work together,” Damon-Moore said, although she said she believes Tucker plays a vital role in serving the community.

There are other ways for Dartmouth to engage more substantially with its neighbors. Rather than send students to build a house or tutor students, Dartmouth could harness its comparative advantage as a research institution by consulting for service organizations, which have a need for detailed research and evaluation of their programming.

“Students have a need for research projects — that’s a perfect pairing,” Argensinger said.

Boley and Kobylenski floated the idea of creating a Dartmouth-run vocational program to train people without job skills in the Upper Valley, a proposal that Osborne said he would support.

“America’s not working, and that would be one step to get people on the skill level and get the confidence back,” Boley said. “Republican, Democrat, Who-o-crat, it don’t matter. We just in a terrible fix.”

At the very least, Dartmouth could make more courses available for community members to audit, Damon-Moore said. Expanding courses to Upper Valley residents, even if they do not have the same academic training as traditional students at Dartmouth, could challenge students’ perspectives on the community.

Wheelan argued that the individuals within Dartmouth, rather than the College itself, should commit themselves to the Upper Valley community.

“It’s not an institutional urgency,” Wheelan said. “It’s an urgency of people within that institution.”

No matter who bears the responsibility, women’s and gender studies professor Patricia Hernandez, who teaches a community-based learning course, emphasized the urgency in combatting false assumptions about the rural poor.

“Ingrained social indications...freely flow in us, and then we judge, and we assume,” she said.

Dakota and Destiny recalled feeling judgmental stares when cashing in SNAP benefits at the grocery store.

“I wouldn’t go into the store with my mom,” Destiny said. “I would go at night.”

Destiny takes responsibility for her actions — she repeated, several times, that her family is homeless because of her decisions. Still, she thinks Dartmouth community members should recognize that circumstances can spiral out of control.

“Don’t judge people who are on welfare,” she said. “You never know. One day, [you] might be on it.”

Hanlon was not made available for comment.

Staff writer Iris Liu contributed reporting.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: Nov. 17, 2013
The original version of this article misspelled the name of the Dartmouth science outreach coordinator. It is Sara Riordan, not Sarah.
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