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With poverty nearly absent from presidential campaign dialogue, what issues matter to people who are struggling?

Written by Emily Previti | Jun 6, 2016 12:29 PM
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Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, argues a point as Hillary Clinton listens during a Democratic presidential primary debate at the University of Michigan-Flint, Sunday, March 6, 2016, in Flint, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

(Shamokin) -- Jim Bowers and his wife Janet spend most of their days cooking and delivering meals to hungry residents of small cities throughout northeastern Pennsylvania's coal region.

They're using a donated school bus retrofitted to function as a mobile soup kitchen they call God's Chuckwagon.

Shamokin, Shenandoah, Mahanoy City, Mt. Carmel - eight stops in all, each week, and 600 people served between them, according to Bowers.

The nonprofit Talk Poverty says nearly 11.3 percent of households - an estimated 1.4 million Pennsylvanians - faced a food shortage during a two-year stretch ending in 2014.

During the decade leading up to that year, food stamp use rose in 38 cities, including Shamokin. It went up more than 70 percent here, according to the Penn State Data Center.

"I feed almost 125, 150 people a day I have people who live in tents year round I have people who work 40 hours a week and still can't afford to feed their family. I have people who have to decide do I want my medicine today or do I want to eat. I want to see if who has the plan that will help these people," Bowers says of the presidential election.

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He's still waiting.

Bowers might amount to a casual observer of the campaign. But his perceptions were confirmed by a recent report from the center for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR.

It focused on nine debates between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and found they mentioned poverty, but weren't asked about it.

Without the candidates being pressed, the conversation's left lacking in detail and voters potentially unequipped to make a choice that reflects their priorities, let alone hold anyone accountable.

Bowers, a Republican, says he's leaning toward his party's presumptive nominee Donald Trump.

Because he believes a business background might be the best shot at increasing employment opportunities.

Trump also has a plan to cut income taxes. But his plan would mean just $1,000 a year, average, more take-home pay for families in poverty, according to Trump's campaign website.

Bowers says they're not a priority, it seems, for any candidates.

Everyone we interviewed seemed to feel that way. The takeaway was distrust, confusion and skepticism of candidates, their policies and intent or ability to deliver.

That held true in the Schuylkill Valley, despite Trump and Clinton's talk about reviving areas that have declined since coal was king.

Generations later, the descendants of miners seem like a lifetime of hard labor's huge for their identity.

Like Norm Lukoskie. After high school, Lukoskie wanted to go to the police academy but the death of his father left him feeling like he should support his mother. He never revisited those plans. Instead, he spent the last couple decades working three jobs.

Checking parking meters by day. And by night, security gigs: evenings at the public high school and on-call overnights at the local police department, plus cleaning offices a couple times a week.

This meant 13-hour days, sometimes much longer,

"I just did it because the way I was brought up is because you work. Nothing gets handed to you," Lukoskie says.

All that work, and he was bringing home less than 15-hundred dollars a month.

And it took a toll: he had an aortic valve rupture a few months ago, just before he turned 42.

He's not working right now - doctor's orders, until July at least - and you can tell not working, is bothering him.

Melissa Farrow, a case manager at Central Susquehanna Opportunities Inc., has plenty of clients with a similar work ethic.

Which brings us to our next big barrier for those struggling to make ends meet: transportation.

"It's basically nonexistent we have a bus that goes from Mount Carmel which is the lowest end of Northumberland County, and it comes through Shamokin - it stops here at this building - and goes to the grocery stores and Shamokin hospital. That's about the extent, you know, and it's limited hours," Farrow says.

Farrow says warehouses and distribution centers offering the best paid low-skill jobs often open up where land is cheap and isn't serviced by bus lines.

"We had one young lady, that I'm working with, she didn't have transportation so she hooked up with somebody to get a ride and that person, you know, didn't go to work for whatever reason so she lost her job. But that's just one of the, you know, anecdotes that happens. That's the kind of thing that happens," Farrow says.

It's unclear how the nation's poorest figure into candidates' plans for public transit.

They all say investing in infrastructure, generally, will create jobs.

Trump's talking about high-speed rail.

Clinton's calling for $275 billion over five years for transportation infrastructure, paid for by taxing the country's wealthiest and involving locally-generated creative solutions.

Sanders says closing corporate tax loopholes will help generate his trillion-dollar transit boost, and states will decide how to spend nearly 40 percent of that.

None get into detail about expanding mass transit. Or talk about optics, how to make it work in Washington.

And no one who follows this stuff is surprised.

"It is vital for our economy and specifically for low income folks who want to get more access to opportunity and often become stranded in what we call transit deserts where they are walking over a mile to get to a single bus stop," says Molly Nichols, director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

People we interviewed also say job training programs need to be more robust, although some advocates argue small businesses (not the government) are best-equipped to provide the most effectie employment prep programs. On-demand scheduling's a big problem as well, prompting lawsuits and federal legislation that hasn't really gone anywhere.

Universal paid family or maternity leave could make a huge difference, some said. So could scaling support for services like child care, instead of the present method of full benefits below a certain income and none above.  

Bowers says it seems like for the people running for national office, these aren't the things on their radar.

"People who have the money, they're comfortable," Bowers says. "And I believe in today's society says it's going back to the haves and have nots."

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