Caught in cycle of poverty

WESTERNPORT - If Wisha Guinn follows in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, she'll live in rural Western Maryland her whole life, have a baby in her teens and forgo prescription medicine so she can spend the money on food instead.

She might find a job, but she'll be lucky if she receives good benefits. And she will have will little or no chance to set anything aside for retirement.


Six-year-old Wisha lives in rural Allegany County, where nearly 50 percent of the children, like her, qualify for free and reduced-price lunches in school. She lives in a dilapidated home with her mother, her grandmother, her grandfather, her uncle, her uncle's girlfriend, her uncle's girlfriend's daughter, her uncle's girlfriend's two younger sisters, three dogs and two cats.

She doesn't have a bed of her own in the house - not at the moment, anyway - and she missed so many days last school year that county officials called a meeting with the family to reprimand them.


In Maryland, poverty issues are hardly restricted to urban areas. Baltimore City has most of the state's social problems, but rural counties struggle with them, too.

Allegany County has a higher percentage of people living in poverty than the rest of the state, and about one-fifth of the people in the county do not have health insurance. It has a higher rate of domestic violence and teen births, and people who live in the county spend a higher percentage of their total income on rent and child care.

Nearly 16 percent of the people in Allegany live in poverty, compared with 9.5 percent statewide and 12 percent nationally. The unemployment rate in the county is 7.8 percent, compared with 3.9 percent statewide and 4.4 percent nationwide.

Like Baltimore City, the county suffers from population loss as the more well-to-do residents move elsewhere, and the poorest and least educated stay behind.

Unlike Baltimore, the county's problems don't usually draw the attention of the outside world.

"Sometimes poverty isn't as visible in rural areas," says the Rev. Rick Jewell, senior minister at New Covenant United Methodist Church in Cumberland. "If you come into Allegany County, driving on [Interstate] 68, you see the natural beauty of the area and Rocky Gap State Park and so forth. But if you get off 68, and start going off into the hills and hollows, it is quite amazing what you find."

If you knew where to look, you would find the crowded home in the woods where Wisha lives. It stands three miles from Westernport, west of Cumberland, up a mile-long dirt road. Wisha's grandparents bought the house on 7 acres for $5,000 in 1977; there have barely been any improvements to it since.

Peeling paint, leaking pipes


The house has no insulation. The roof sags. There are holes in the walls and ceilings. The paint is peeling. The pipes are leaking. The toilet doesn't flush. The driveway is so deeply rutted that it takes 15 minutes to drive in a four-wheel drive car. There is junk everywhere - clothes, toys, old cars, broken appliances. Barely big enough for two, the house sleeps 9 or 10. Wisha shares a bed with her mother.

Ellen Guinn, Wisha's 44-year-old grandmother, doesn't want all these people in her tiny home. She calls them "freeloaders." But she knows they have nowhere else to go.

Homelessness often takes this form in a rural area, says Kathy Powell, an associate professor of social work at Frostburg State University.

"We don't have many people who live on the street," says Powell, who has studied poverty in the area. "People who are homeless here tend to cope by doubling up with friends or extended family members, often in overcrowded conditions."(The state has housing rehabilitation loans available for the rural poor, says Ed McDonough, spokesman for the Department of Housing and Community Development. But officials need help from the local governments. "We depend on local governments to help us make decisions, to try to identify people and guide them to us if they want to apply for a loan," he says.)

Allegany County has struggled for the past two decades as industry has left the area. Tourism has grown, but service industry jobs don't pay as much. People complain that there aren't enough jobs in the area that pay a living wage.

For the past six years, Powell has sent her social work students into rural Allegany to interview the poor. Her students have found mothers coming off welfare who can hardly support themselves, diabetics who can't afford medication and an epileptic who repeatedly loses her jobs because of her disability.


Problems such as these exist in the city, of course - but the difference, say Powell and others, is that people in rural areas often live farther from help. Transportation problems tend to be worse. There are fewer slots for infant care, which leaves young mothers struggling to balance jobs with children, says Jane Rees Schwartz, executive director of the Allegany County Human Resources Development Commission, a nonprofit agency that serves the poor.

Although Powell believes there are enough services in Allegany to help those in need, she says they are scattered over the county, making it hard for people to navigate the system.

And Allegany's poor, like those in other rural counties throughout the nation, can't pin their hopes on philanthropic foundations in cities such as Baltimore, which have their own staggering social problems to address.

"Almost all the foundations in Maryland are based in Baltimore," says Sue Dotson, who works at the Mountainside Community Coalition, an emerging Cumberland nonprofit group that serves the poor. "They don't want to come and fund something out here."

The Mountainside Community Coalition is part of a new and growing effort to plug that philanthropic gap. Such community foundations rely on pooling money from small, local donors.

"The control lies with the community and the board that decides who gets the grants," says Tricia Rubacky, a senior adviser to the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations.


The Allegany Community Access Program, a group of health care providers associated with the Mountainside coalition, has applied for a federal grant to help provide health services to low-income residents.

But that doesn't help families like the Guinns get out of the cycle of poverty that seems to have trapped them for generations. The family tells stories about drunken relatives who left their children to starve, about living off raccoon burgers and berries and dandelion greens because they couldn't afford to go to the market.

Ellen Guinn volunteers twice a week at the Western Maryland Food Bank in Cumberland. In exchange, she receives almost enough food to feed the large crowd in her home. She says she "makes" more at the food bank, where she has volunteered for 15 years, than she ever could if she went out and got a full-time job in the county.

Prescriptions went unfilled

Until two years ago, Ellen Guinn had never had health insurance, which proved a problem when she hit 472 pounds and her body started rebelling. She says she bounced from hospital to hospital, accruing debts at all of them, and didn't bother filling prescriptions that the doctors wrote for her; she couldn't afford to.

For the longest time, she says, she and her husband owned only one car - a big problem when you live three miles from the nearest town.


Wisha's mother, Mary Ellen, has an associate's degree in communications from Allegany College but says there are no job openings in her field in the county. Instead, she works at Wal-Mart in nearby LaVale.

For the Guinns, all this hunger and poverty takes an emotional toll after a while. "It's like you have been dog-eared and whipped," one says, "and you know you are going to be whipped again."

Sun staff writer Joel McCord contributed to this article.

For the record

An article in the July 13 editions of The Sun contained incorrect information about the residents of an Allegany County household. Two children - identified as the younger sisters of Wisha Guinn's uncle's girlfriend - do not live at the home that was the focus of the story. The Sun regrets the error.