The Northeast Kingdom is famed for Lake Memphremagog and its fabled underwater monster, Memphre.
Forget the folklore. A real bloodsucking villain tyrannizes our three counties, plaguing 25 percent of our neighbors: men, women and children known to call themselves Nekcies.
Single mothers go without so the children can eat. Teeth fall out because the landlord trumps the dentist. Households move often, with many fathers off to prison. Teenagers are homeless, kicked out by parents who can't afford them.
"We have the deepest poverty in the state," says Joe Patrissi, executive director of NEKCA, the Northeast Kingdom's community action program. Patrissi was one of five panelists speaking about poverty on a June evening at Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury. He identifies three tickets to poverty: no education, no job, pregnancy before age 25.
"Losing a job, getting sick or divorced, becoming elderly or disabled," also can push people into poverty, he says, acknowledging, yes, "there is some generational poverty.
"'The child is father of the man.' We are shaped by what happens earlier in life," he says, noting pregnant teens who drop out often beget pregnant teens who drop out.
Another panelist points to the economy as culprit.
"People are kept in poverty because of the economic system we have," says Greg Macdonald, who coordinates public assistance in the Northeast Kingdom. "In order for capitalism to survive, you need poverty." A 30 year veteran with the Agency of Human Services, Macdonald is packing up his office on Eastern Avenue in St. Johnsbury and retiring. "Many, many things are broken in this system."
"We live in an incredibly community, this community gives a lot," he says, somewhat wistfully. A man who is apt to quote Lincoln or Lennon, Macdonald adds, "A lot of people are suffering. It would tear you up."
Sharing Macdonald's message on the "Courageous Conversation" dais, fellow panelist Melissa Bourque of St. Johnsbury, a member of the Vermont Worker's Center says, "Poverty is not an accident, its part of a well oiled system, with money the bottom line. It is not human rights based." VWC, based in Burlington, is a member organization of Vermonters who make their living working, not via investments.
In parking lots and on street corners, similar dialogues about the have-nots are common in the Kingdom. Within the retail community, where the poor shop with state issued debit cards, it's an open and opinionated season, if not an all out class war.
"So damn fat and lazy, walking around in their pajamas."
"They should get off their butts and find a job."
"I'd like to sit at home and have the government put money in my account, too!"
What's happened to the caring New England attitudes that led farm wives to feed railroad hobos at the back door? Across the Connecticut last June, a Keene city council committee refused to donate to a homeless shelter, expressing contempt for the needy.
"We know about racism and other discrimination, but discrimination against the poor is not spoken about," says Paul Dragon, Vermont's Reach Up chief. "People are very quick to point the finger at the poor." Welfare recipients feel burdened by the public's perception, "They feel ashamed."
But NEKCA case manager Kathy Metras says the prosecution of the poor in the Court of Public Opinion is nothing new for a Reach Up participant. "How many years have people been judging her? Why should she care? She probably doesn't even feel noticed."
During the past 10 years, national television has masterfully taught us to judge, quickly and harshly. We're entertained watching roommates vote each other off the island or out of the house. Seeing the overweight toss a competitor out on her fat rear-end draws us. We push a telephone number and create the next platinum recording star after hearing their 1 minute and 42 second performance.
State Senator Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, worked 37 years at the Agency of Human Services on poverty programs, serving as Commissioner of the Department of Social Welfare and AHS Secretary. Upon retirement 8 years ago, she entered the State Senate and takes a long view of the Kingdom and its Villain.
"I've been surprised by the general public," she says, referring to the class war. "They've forgotten that when we reformed the welfare system, we focused on short term financial support with a work requirement."
Kitchel concedes tough economic times have made enforcing the requirement impossible, "There's no work, so that's were community service comes in." Fulfilling work requirements at a NEKCA worksite or nonprofit agency keeps people connected, contributing and developing, she says. "There is nothing worse than a lifetime of welfare dependency, so stigmatized."
Perched in his pharmacy booth at a St. Johnsbury drug store, pharmacist Jack Ruggles views poor customers with a great 'astigmatism'. Working in NEK drugstores, he's observed clientele for nearly half a century.
"We've created a new society, a new consumer," he says, "demanding, unappreciative, unhappy, unmarried, raising kids, obese and not working." He knows Vermont loads welfare recipients' grant and food benefits on EBT cards at the beginning of every month.
"It's like Christmas! They get beer, cash, junk food. The carts are full. Then half way through the month, there's no money for their kid's prescription co-pay."
Countering Ruggles, a case manager says, "Every mother wants to buy her child a treat," and Senator Kitchel adds, "The cheapest calories are the worst calories."
Disrespectful behavior is not exclusive to the poor, says director Dragon. "The general population, upper and middle class, is prone to rudeness." Rage over poor money management is not limited to those living in low income housing, either. The June American Values Survey conducted by the Aspen Institute found 71 percent of Americans think Wall Street executives who presided over significant financial losses should have gone to jail.
Advocates for NEK senior citizens sense less than charitable attitudes, as well. Ken Gordon, executive director of the Area Agency on Aging for Northeastern Vermont, has heard the public carp to elders, "Oh, you've got Medicare, you've got it made."
While she believes attacks on the poor aren't as bad here as in other states, Senator Jane Kitchel thinks they've escalated, "As more and more families move to the edge and experience economic insecurity."