Poverty tops 11 percent in Shawano County

Help your neighbors, speaker urges
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Leader Photo by Scott Williams Nancy Schultz, standing, addresses an audience Tuesday at the Shawano City-County Library on the current state of poverty and homelessness in Shawano County.

More than 4,500 people in Shawano County are living in poverty and face the prospects of a downward spiral that could lead them to depression and even suicide.

That was the grim prognosis offered Tuesday in a presentation on local poverty and homelessness, and the issues that contribute to and aggravate the problem.

Nancy Schultz, family living educator for the University of Wisconsin-Extension, said some local residents routinely must choose between food and other basic necessities for themselves and their families.

“Can you imagine what it feels like to go through this on a day-to-day basis?” Schultz told an audience. “It’s so overwhelming.”

In a presentation called “Faces of Poverty,” Schultz addressed a crowd at the Shawano City-County Library in downtown Shawano. The library is featuring a photo exhibit related to homelessness, and officials invited Schultz to discuss related issues.

About a dozen people attended the program, and some were disheartened to hear the extent and impact of poverty so close to home.

“I was stunned,” said Dennis Zopp, a retired schoolteacher who questioned whether Shawano County has the right kind of job opportunities needed to lift people out of poverty.

Mikki Moesch, another audience member, said she is exposed to the issue first-hand while volunteering with a local church’s food basket program for needy families.

“It’s not necessarily new to me,” she said. “But when I first started hearing some of those statistics, it was shocking.”

With the number of people living in poverty estimated at 4,548 in Shawano County, that represents more than 11 percent of the countywide population. Poverty is defined as an individual earning less than $11,770 a year or a family of four earning less than $24,250 a year.

Schultz said the largest demographic in poverty was once the elderly, but the largest now is single mothers and the fastest growing group is children.

Contributing factors include rising food prices, a lack of affordable housing, cuts to government aid programs and poor transportation options.

A former longtime nutritionist in the federal aid program known as Women, Infants and Children, Schultz said people stuck in poverty with no relief in sight often develop mental health issues that can include depression and thoughts of suicide. She recalled one mother calling for help after running out of baby formula for her newborn, with no way of getting more.

“I continue to see many, many people desperate and depressed,” she said.

Schultz pointed to last year’s successful opening of a homeless shelter in Shawano as an encouraging sign that members of the community are starting to recognize poverty as an issue. She said the shelter recorded more than 300 individual overnight stays during its first winter season.

She urged audience members to be sympathetic toward their neighbors living in poverty — and to offer a helping hand whenever possible.

“It can make a huge difference in their lives,” she said. “It really does take a community to turn this all around.”