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Hidden in plain sight: Poverty in LA

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County > Organizations struggle to assist low-income families

By Arin McKenna

Forbes ranked Los Alamos County the third wealthiest county in the United States this year. The county also has the highest number of millionaires, according to Phoenix Marketing International. Livability.com just named Los Alamos the best small town in the country.
So it is very hard for most people to believe that poverty exists in the county.
 “I think there is a perception that Los Alamos doesn’t have poverty. In areas of affluence, sometimes the issues of poverty become invisible. And it is true in Los Alamos that the great majority of people are doing rather well,” said Ellen Morris Bond, executive director for Self Help, Inc., a program dedicated to enhancing life skills and empowering individuals by providing programs and services that focus on developing self-reliance.
 “Whenever I do public talks, people are kind of shocked at my reports of what I deal with on the ground here, as an agency that deals with struggling people in Los Alamos almost every day. Every day I hear and see and meet with families that struggle to stay here.”
Statistics show that 3.9 percent of the county’s population lives in poverty, based on such things as the number of food stamp recipients. And the story does not stop there.
“Statistical analysis and census studies show that there’s another 10 percent on top of that in any community that struggles to feed themselves and pay all bills every month,” Morris Bond said.
According to Morris Bond, the commanding presence of Los Alamos National Laboratory serves to hide the struggle many families face.
“We are a town surrounding the laboratory, and that makes for a very significant upper income group. That skews the picture,” Morris Bond said. “But there are so many people in service jobs who serve the lunch, who do the laundry at the hotel, who are bagging groceries at the grocery store.”
Ellen Ben-Naim, a coordinator for the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, points out that even those employed by LANL may be financially insecure.
“There’s this overall assumption that everyone with a job at the lab has a high salary. Wrong,” Ben-Naim said. “Troy (JJAB Youth Resource Advocate Troy Palmer) has a good number of clients where at least one adult has a job at the lab, but they’re still low income, still struggling.”
Although county programs and nonprofits such as Self Help, Inc., LA Cares, the Betty Ehart Senior Center meals program, the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board and others work diligently to address the needs of those in need, many issues affecting low income households remain unaddressed.
This is the first in a series exploring the reality of poverty in Los Alamos and the various efforts to address the issue.
Self Help, Inc. offers a number of programs to assist those needing a hand up, many of them geared toward engendering self reliance. Those are:
• Los Alamos Emergency Fund, which provides one-time financial assistance with basic needs such as food, medicine, utility bills or rent.
• Consultation and Advocacy: Provides one-on-one contact and assessment of clients seeking assistance with basic needs, including referrals to the appropriate social, financial or legal services.
• Seed Money for Self-Reliance Grants allows applicants to initiate a small business, begin job training or start other projects that will enhance financial self-reliance. Grants are small, usually not exceeding $1,000, and are provided on a one-time basis.
• 2-1-1 Information and Referral: Through a grant from United Way of Northern New Mexico, Self Help, Inc., has initiated an information and referral line accessible toll-free from all cell phones and landlines in Rio Arriba, Taos, and Los Alamos Counties. The resources can also be accessed on the Internet at referweb.net/unnm.
United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta launched the first 2-1-1 call system in 1997 to provide a referral network for those needing help with food, housing, employment, health care, counseling and more. The program is now nationwide. New Mexico has 100 percent coverage.
According to Morris Bond, 2-1-1 provides critical support those in immediate need, such as a woman in a domestic violence situation.
“When people are having struggles, they often need help immediately, and our office has contracted with the 2-1-1, the United Way initiative to have an easy to remember phone number, a website and published materials,” Morris Bond said. Self Help, Inc., mans the local 2-1-1 line and hands out 2-1-1 brochures with a list of local services.
“So we consider our office to be one of those kinds of resources. If somebody had an immediate change in their lives, and they just needed to talk to someone and figure things out, we would be there.”
Besides basic needs resources, 2-1-1 also offers referrals for physical and mental health resources, employment support and support for older Americans, persons with disabilities and children, youth and families. It also has resources for volunteer opportunities and donations.
Morris Bond suggested one way that those wishing to alleviate poverty might contribute, in addition to supporting local nonprofits such as Self Help: donating to need-based scholarship programs.
“The need-based scholarship programs are very, very important to young people who may have experienced poverty in their youth and may be trying to change that,” Morris Bond said.
“That’s a powerful tool in our society. Not that college guarantees one a job these days. Lots of kids are struggling. But it gives you more of the key to that door.”
Empty Bowls, which takes place in March, is Self Help’s major fundraiser of the year.
Donations are also accepted year-round.
Self Help, Inc., is a United Way community partner. Look for more on United Way in the upcoming series.