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Erie people become more self-sufficient: Jennifer Schade

 Recently, new data revealed that poverty has increased in both the city of Erie and Erie County. In 2013, Erie's poverty rate jumped from 25.7 percent to 29.2 percent, the second highest in Pennsylvania. Across Erie County, the poverty rate is 18.3 percent, up from 15.8 percent in 2012.


But who are the people behind the statistics?


Today, I want to introduce you to Corrine. She is one of thousands -- 49,005, to be exact -- living in poverty in Erie County. Corrine is a single mom raising an infant daughter and working a full-time, minimum-wage job.


Unfortunately, Corrine needs more than twice what she currently earns to be financially self-reliant. According to PathWays PA, Corrine, with her infant daughter, needs to earn $33,056 to be self-sufficient in Erie County, but Corrine's minimum-wage job pays just $15,312 per year. Living paycheck to paycheck, Corrine is not able to achieve financial stability even with a bare-bones budget. Her precarious existence could easily break if she became seriously ill and could not work, if she lost her job or faced a reduction in work hours.


That's why United Way of Erie County's Live United 2025 challenge to the community is so important and timely. The Live United vision is to help 10,000 more families become self-sufficient by 2025. It's become a catalyst for a communitywide call to action in our local fight against poverty.


Given the high rate of poverty here, United Way is directing its funding, advocacy and volunteerism efforts to this pervasive issue. Thanks to the generosity of Erie County residents and employers, United Way consistently invests in programs addressing education, income and health -- the building blocks of a good life. These programs are focused on people living in poverty and low-income wage earners, to assist them in moving up the economic ladder. In addition, nearly one-half of United Way funding is directed toward safety net resources provided by agencies across Erie County. These include emergency housing, food and services that assist anyone when personal and family crises arise.


One of United Way's most important poverty-reduction initiatives is United Way Erie Free Taxes. This program provides free tax preparation for hardworking low-income families so they can earn their tax refunds, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, if applicable. Called the nation's No. 1 anti-poverty program, the EITC consistently earns bipartisan support within the U.S. Congress.


Each year, United Way recruits more than 100 volunteers who are trained as IRS-certified tax preparers to provide free tax preparation at sites across Erie County. These volunteers include bankers, accountants, retired professionals and college students seeking practical real-world experience who help those in need. They work under the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program that operates in communities across the nation.


In the past seven years, Erie Free Taxes has helped Erie County tax filers receive nearly $35 million in federal refund dollars. This includes more than $14 million in EITC refund dollars. In tax year 2013 alone, Erie Free Taxes returned $9.1 million to taxpayers, including $3.15 million in EITC refunds.


Research shows that EITC recipients typically spend up to 80 percent of their EITC refund locally on immediate day-to-day necessities -- goods, services, bill paying. In this way, Erie Free Taxes boosts not only the finances of each family but also the overall Erie County economy. Nationally recognized, Erie Free Taxes benefits families and the local economy while strengthening the workforce by incentivizing and rewarding work.


Corrine is one of the people benefiting from Erie Free Taxes. Because Corrine earns approximately $15,312 per year as a full-time, minimum-wage employee, she will most likely be eligible to claim an EITC refund of up to $3,000 during the 2015 filing season, in addition to her regular refund and free tax preparation. This amount represents 20 percent of her annual wage and may allow her to start an emergency fund or make much-needed car repairs to ensure reliable transportation to work. With her EITC refund, Corrine is one step closer to becoming financially stable.


United Way knows that behind the troubling poverty statistics, there are real people struggling to make ends meet. We are focused on helping our friends and neighbors in need and invite you to help, too.


To learn more, visit If you can, contribute to the 2014-2015 campaign or volunteer your time at To learn more about becoming a volunteer income tax assistance preparer, contact Cheryl Bates, program director at United Way, at 456-2937, Ext. 236, or


Everyone doing their part to reduce poverty and increase self-sufficiency: That's what it means to Live United.


JENNIFER SCHADE is first vice president, area manager, at First Niagara Bank and chairwoman of United Way of Erie County's Income Impact Council.
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