Like many affluent Westchester communities, Larchmont/Mamaroneck is home to trendy shops, upscale restaurants, luxury homes and expensive cars. At the same time, it is home to many individuals, disproportionately women and children, who fall so far below the average standard of living that they struggle to meet basic needs. This is the picture painted by a panel at the January 19th meeting of the Local Summit, as presenters from several social service agencies and advocate groups shared county and local statistics on poverty.
What do the numbers show?
Jeremy Ingpen, executive director of the Washingtonville Housing Alliance (WHA), a housing assistance agency in Mamaroneck, estimated from a review of multiple data sources that there are 250 to 500 female heads of household with children living in poverty in the Larchmont/Mamaroneck community and a significant number of single elderly women also living on minimal incomes.
Cora Greenberg, executive director of the Westchester Children’s Association (WCA), an independent child advocacy group founded in 1914, added a demographic from the American Community Survey: the number of poor children living in Westchester in 2008 is estimated at 26,635, or 11.7% of all children.
The WCA website features this dramatic visual: “If Westchester’s poor children held hands, they would stretch across the county from the Long Island Sound to the Hudson River.” Ms. Greenberg noted that poor women and children may be “fairly invisible” here in Westchester, but their numbers are significant.
Sizing the Problem
Mr. Ingpen framed the issue further with statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), WHA intake information for families seeking housing assistance, and free school lunch data from a local elementary school.
Currently, 60% of the 247 households in Larchmont and Mamaroneck receiving a Section 8 rent subsidy through HUD are headed by women. To qualify, households must have an income no greater than 50% of the median county income. The 2009 HUD median annual income for a family of four in Westchester was $105,300; thus, to qualify for Section 8, a family of four must have an income no greater than $52,650. But, Mr. Ingpen explained, 77% of local Section 8 families actually have annual incomes less than one-third of the county median, which means under $31,600 for a family of four. Although single mothers with children account for 52 of the 247 total Section 8 households in the community, almost twice this number — 97 — are females over the age of 62 who are living alone.
To further illuminate this “concentration of poverty” in female-headed households, Mr. Ingpen related statistics collected by WHA from those seeking housing assistance during 2008. Of the 300 families the organization served, two-thirds were headed by women, and the majority of these had incomes less than 30% of the median. The households were predominantly minority — 25% African American and 60% Hispanic. None of the WHA families receives Section 8 assistance, so they represent a separate number of poor households.
The number of students receiving free and reduced school lunch is another measure of poverty in a community, since eligibility is based on a very minimal income — less than $21,000 for a family of three. Mr. Ingpen observed that although 122 students currently receive free lunch at the Mamaroneck Avenue School, this under-represents the number of those eligible. Ms. Greenberg agreed that the school-lunch rate countywide was “woefully undercounted,” in part because undocumented immigrants, although eligible, are reluctant to come forward to claim the benefit.
Hispanics Disproportionately At Risk
A third panelist, Zoe Colon, executive director of the Hispanic Resource Center (HRC) of Larchmont & Mamaroneck, expanded on the special circumstances of the Hispanic poor, calling them “disproportionately at risk,” the undocumented immigrant “even more so.” Women in these families are mostly engaged in domestic work that does not offer health insurance, vacation or sick leave. They are often exploited, with some going unpaid for weeks at a time, without recourse. With the current recession, many women who once worked full time may have only part-time work. If women or children are undocumented, they are not eligible for public benefits like food stamps and rent assistance.
Household Budgets – Illuminating and Sobering
One eye-opening portion of the program was the presentation of household budgets by Mr. Ingpen. In order to receive emergency rent or utility assistance, WHA requires clients to itemize their household expenditures, and Mr. Ingpen shared several budget examples from single mothers with children. In the majority of these, 80% or more of the household income went to rent, with only minimal amounts left for utilities and food, and typically none for child care.
Mr. Ingpen also pointed out one item on the revenue side that was typically missing — child support. Ms. Greenberg said that Westchester County has “dramatically increased child support collection,” but problems remain iwhen the father is not employed or the mother does not want to seek court-ordered payment because of side payments of cash that go unreported.
A Call to Action
Discussion following the panel’s remarks was lively, with a theme of how the community can understand and work to meet the needs of its impoverished members. Ms. Colon called for an updated community needs assessment and collaboration between various social agencies. She also outlined steps the Hispanic Resource Center was taking to encourage immigrants to participate in the 2010 census count.
Panelists as well as audience members highlighted the gap between government assistance and community needs. Anna Dannoy, who supervises social services for Larchmont and Mamaroneck, said the Section 8 waiting list was now frozen, with 75 of the approximately 300 local families on the list having already waited for two years. Although Section 8 applications are still being accepted, no new assistance is being provided at this time. Others pointed to the wait time and difficulty of applications for services such as food stamps or child care assistance.
With the restrictions on government assistance, speakers stressed that it was important that nonprofits fill the gaps. Mr. Ingpen gave one example of how the Washingtonville Housing Alliance is doing this. Having recently received a grant from People’s United Bank, WHA now plans to offer financial literacy programs to help clients achieve permanent financial stability.
The panelists and members of the audience representing social services organizations emphasized the importance of donations from private individuals in the community so that their organizations could continue to provide support to those in need.
Carolyn Pomeranz, Summit board member, concluded the meeting with a call to “show compassion for those in need in our own community, in our own backyard. There are many, right here in Larchmont and Mamaroneck, who are struggling to make ends meet and truly need our help.”
The Local Summit, which hosted the meeting, is an informal community council that seeks to make Larchmont/Mamaroneck a better place to live for everyone. Its regular monthly meetings take place at 7:45 a.m., typically on the third Tuesday of the month at the Nautilus Diner in Mamaroneck.