Jack Frech may have retired as head of the welfare department in Athens County, but he hasn’t stopped fighting against poverty. He recently returned to the national stage to again speak in support of poor people.
Frech was featured on NPR’s “On the Media” program as part of a five-part series called “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths.” He appeared in a companion video by WNET for the New York City television station’s “Chasing the Dream” initiative, which is looking at destitution in America.
Frech took “On the Media” host Brooke Gladstone on a tour of Athens County, so she could see first-hand the financial hardship for many residents in this part of Appalachia. The show-and-tell effort was not the first for Frech, who, for more than four decades, has provided tours to scores of journalists, including ABC’s Peter Jennings and NBC’s Ann Curry.
To understand why Frech continues to offer his services as a guide and expert for the media in his retirement years, it helps to go back to the early 1970s. He was a 20-something, just starting his career with the Ohio welfare agency.
“There was a requirement that caseworkers had to do a home visit to all of their clients,” he said. “While you thought you knew these folks from sitting across the desk from them, it was a whole different story sitting in their home.
“I was struck by the harshness of their situation and the personal warmth they maintained in spite of that,” he continued. “Mostly I learned how deeply they loved their families and wanted a better life for their children, just like everyone else.”
But these people “faced challenges with health issues, educational issues, substance abuse, transportation, housing, food and other issues that many of us couldn't imagine,” Frech said. He came to realize “how far removed this all was from the rest of the community.”
Frech said he concluded that if other people saw this they would support efforts to “fix the problem,” which is why he tried so hard over the years “to get the story out and to make the system more humane from within.”
But that hasn’t happened, and today more than 45 million Americans live in poverty. “On the Media” reports that this is because most citizens “see the problem of poverty from a distance, through a distorted lens.”
The series makes the point that the country’s views on poverty are “shaped not by facts, but by private presumptions, media narratives, and the tales of the American Dream” and concludes that people who are poor are likely to stay that way under current government policies.
Frech put in 33 years as director of Athens County Job and Family Services. During that time he came to learn that most people, if they’re not poor, do not know someone who’s poor and know very little about their lives and have misperceptions about them.
The greatest of those is that poor people are lazy, according to Frech.
“There needs to be a reason why we are unwilling to share with them, and the best way is to say, ‘they are poor through their own fault,’” Frech told “On the Media.” “We've gone so far in this country as to actually say that sharing with them hurts them, giving them help creates dependency.”
He noted that this kind of thinking does not apply to “Social Security, unemployment compensation, veterans benefits, tax breaks for mortgage payments, all the other things that everyone gets. Medicaid, which, of course, is welfare, too… Almost everyone has to go on Medicaid, and yet, no one looks down on them.”
Frech contends that people are “very specific about who we decide is on welfare and who isn’t, and we overlook the fact that the average length of time of people on welfare is about two years. It’s all in the matter of the way we label things.”
According to the latest Ohio Poverty Report put out by the Ohio Development Services Agency in February, an estimated 340,000, or 11.6 percent, of Ohio families were poor. And Frech is not optimistic that things will get any better.
“Cash assistance caseloads in Ohio continue to drop,” he said. “The average per person (cash assistance) benefit is still only $190 per month.”
In addition to low benefits, wages are low, and housing costs are high, according to Frech, while transportation and other issues create “significant barriers to successful employment.”
“These require substantial policy changes that do not appear to be in the pipeline,” he concludes.
Richard Vedder is a distinguished professor emeritus of economics at Ohio University with a national reputation as an economic conservative. His analysis of poverty focuses on “work involvement” and family situation.
“Reducing poverty requires dealing with these issues,” he said.
“The 2015 poverty rate for individuals working full-time, year-round is only 2.4 percent, compared with 15.5 percent for part-time workers and 31.8 percent for those not working all,” Vedder said. “Jobs are critical to alleviating poverty.”
As for living arrangements, “married couple households had a 2015 poverty rate of only 5.4 percent,” said Vedder, who points out the rate is five times greater for a family with a single female head of household.
“Busted” was broadcast locally on WOUB (where it aired Saturdays through Oct. 30 as part “On the Media.” It’s also available at www.onthemedia.org and other places where podcasts may be downloaded.