Statistics provided by Van Nielsen, Grant Writer
Written by Rachel Petek, AmeriCorps VISTA at Jefferson Memorial Forest
For the record, I’ve been fascinated and perplexed by AmeriCorps VISTA ever since I started. We’re here today because we all drank the VISTA Kool Aid (even though it was grape, which should be outlawed). It’s kind of how most of us ended up one day in college, blinking our eyes and wondering how we got there. While college may not have been a choice, we are VISTAs because we entered entirely of our own volition. No one could make us do this work; we chose it. We wanted to live out one of JFK’s final visions by being “Volunteers in Service to America.” The goal here is not to slander that vision, but to critique how it has taken shape in the 21st century, and how it relates to the collective experiences of AmeriCorps VISTAs in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as my own.
Glitch in the Pitch
Since we decided to dedicate a year of our lives to this cause, whatever the reason, I’d like to take a moment to examine the status-quo and hold VISTA up to the light, just a little bit, on both a state and national level. Here’s how VISTA pitches the program to prospective members: “As a VISTA member you will serve in a project identified and managed by the community while earning a modest living allowance that reflects the income level of the community where you’re serving.” Vague language aside, the theory here is that with what we’re given, we will be able to better relate to the people we’ll serve, which is a problematic assumption. As another VISTA pointed out, it doesn’t logically make sense to put roughly 8,000 people into poverty each year in order to fight poverty.
How Louisville’s VISTAs Stack Up to State and National Poverty
To provide more of a context for all of this, the following information demonstrates how out-of-date poverty measures are: “The U.S. Census Bureau determines poverty status by comparing pre-tax cash income against a threshold that is set at three times the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963, updated annually for inflation using the Consumer Price Index (CPI), and adjusted for family size, composition, and age of householder. ‘Family’ is defined by the official poverty measure as persons living together who are related by birth, marriage, or adoption. Thresholds do not vary geographically.”
Minimum wage in Kentucky is $7.25 an hour. That is $15,080 a year, or 125% of poverty. This is the lowest the federal government allows states to set the wage. If a Kentuckian works at a job where they’re tipped, their employer can count tips toward their wage and compensate as low as $2.13 an hour to match up to the $7.25. A living wage in Jefferson County is $10.50 an hour, $21,840 per year, or 180% of poverty. The county has the 5th greatest income inequality in the state, with the top 1% of income earners making 19.2 times more than the average of the remaining 99%.
Local VISTAs make 47% of a livable wage. If we abide by the golden rule that rent should amount to no more than 1/3 of our monthly income, we could afford $260 in rent off the face-value of our stipend, which means finding a roommate, and probably an apartment in a neighborhood with an already high concentration of poverty. Kentucky ranks as the 5th highest rate of poverty in the United States. For African Americans, the average income is $17,732 or $8.50/hr, 150% of poverty. Consequently, 31% of African Americans live in poverty compared to 17.3% of whites. 18.5% of the state’s entire population lives in poverty (at or below 100%).
The Existential Crisis of VISTA-hood
All numbers aside, I cannot claim that I have a true understanding of what it is to be poor in this country, especially while raising a family, so I wouldn’t dare. I also do not think that understanding is possible by serving a year as a VISTA. I certainly have more of an idea now than when I came in, but empathizing with people is not the same as helping them. I have to decide whether to buy new pants or groceries, can’t afford to contribute to unplanned happenings like car repairs, and could only attend a Spokane friend’s wedding in September because I have people looking out for me. I miss being generous and selfless with my money. I miss my financial independence and the illusion of stability. I get home at the end of the day zapped, and a lot of the time can’t find the energy to be patient with, or kind, to myself and loved ones. I can’t absorb statistics that Van rattles to me, like the ones above. It’s not just Kentucky either – these are nationwide problems, especially in rural America, tribal communities, and the south. I can tell you right now that if I wasn’t in a healthy relationship with a fantastic, financially-stable man, being a VISTA would be a nightmare.
If I had done this alone, I probably wouldn’t have had the chops to see it though, which pains my inquisitive, adventurous spirit to admit. I by no means come from an affluent family, but we never had want for anything, and were raised on a diet of my mom’s damn fine chicken pot pie, Mel Brooks humor, and appreciation of life. In my naïve little mind, I didn’t mind the idea of making no money as a VISTA if I was able to make a lasting positive impact for other people. There was no way for me to predict how this would go when I was looking at the year ahead from a computer screen 2,053 miles away. You can’t know – you’ve just got to keep doing crazy things, take risks, do good where you can, and be grateful for the people you have in your life.
He-alth-care… Is What I Got
My advice to all of you starting out, even those in the thick of this, is use your resources! Please. Apply for SNAP benefits. Get insurance coverage while it’s still a thing. If you’re a single adult making less than $16,385 (that’s you, VISTA!), you’re eligible for KY Medicaid. KYnect will assign you a provider, but the experience may be unreliable since the marketplace is so upside down at the moment. Find a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) nearest to you. They will take Medicaid, offer quick scheduling, comprehensive services, and culturally/linguistically appropriate care. You can sign up right here: https://findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov/. I have personally had several positive visits to Family Health Center on East Broadway (just had my teefs cleaned today, as a matter of fact…for FREE!). They are all great people who provide quality services, but expect a long wait time before your appointment.
For your physical health, the YMCA offers a sliding scale for its members based on income. The staff at the downtown location is especially friendly and helpful, and the facilities are well-maintained. The Y offers a great variety of fitness classes and equipment, as well as an indoor pool. As far as general well-being in the workplace, keep in touch with your supervisor and be vocal about what you need. If that doesn’t go anywhere, talk with your VISTA Leader and/or the State Office if you’ve tried everything, but are unhappy. Don’t let yourself be treated more like a liability than an asset. A year is a short amount of time, which can feel like forever, and may or may not be worth the while to you. If the shoe don’t fit, go thriftin’ (or barefoot, since being a VISTA is all about the extreme).
“Getting Things Done”- for the Poor, While Being Poor
Upon reflection of what this year has meant in the scheme of my life, I’ve met some great people in Kentucky, from those who work with refugee populations, to our volunteers at the Forest who have been maintaining trails since the 1990s, to gleaning perspective from locals on the West side of town, simply by venturing out of my ordinary. I forget that’s what I did by moving to this state in the first place. The work I’ve done has afforded me skills I may not have gained elsewhere. I have made positive changes, even though they didn’t take the shape I imagined or hoped when I joined VISTA. An office job showed me how deeply I miss working with people instead of pixels. I have come to respect the people I have met through this experience and recognize that like so many institutions, AmeriCorps has its flaws.
Sometimes, I feel like I’ve been stood up by a very charming, convincing date. I’m too old for this, I think, but I wasn’t a fool for doing it anyway, and neither are you. This kind of national service has been eye-opening, if nothing else, to the vital, complex soup of nonprofit work, communication dysfunction of federal and municipal governments (and adults in general), and how fiercely I hold to my convictions. Good luck out there, VISTAs of Louisville, and if you need to shoot the breeze (I reckon you might), you know where to find me. For what it’s worth, I believe in your work, and I hope that it’s meaningful to you, and to the people and places that compelled you to do this, in the end.
 https://www.minimum-wage.org/kentucky, https://www.dol.gov/whd/state/tipped.htm