- Associated Press - Sunday, June 15, 2014

HAMMOND, Ind. (AP) - Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, the U.S. finds itself still grappling with homelessness, mental illness, joblessness, urban blight and other persistent issues connected with being impoverished, unemployed, uneducated or otherwise unable to find opportunity.

Welfare critics and reformers alike clamor for better ways to deal with the destitute, jobless and chronically underemployed who can’t recoup mounting losses. Many agree current poverty “is not your grandmother’s poverty, anymore,” in the words of Jodie Levin-Epstein, director of the Center for Law and Social Policy.

Today, 66 percent of families with children that fall below the federal poverty level have at least one member who works — 40 percent have a family member with a full-time job; 26 percent have at least one member who works part time.

On the other hand, 15 percent of Americans between ages 16 and 24 are neither in school nor working, according to a recent Opportunity Nation coalition study.

The local working poor and idle youth present challenges if Northwest Indiana and Chicago’s south suburbs are to thrive and compete globally for a sound economic future.

The Times (http://bit.ly/1s0rPIR ) presents a comprehensive look at neighbors in need in a special section assessing the problems for them and society, introducing three area families, how they are coping with financial obstacles — and striving to overcome them.

Onteria Fornett, of Hammond, has figured out how to make a way out of no way.

The 49-year-old mother of four sons, three of whom are still in school, is rearing her family on less than $1,000 a month in Social Security disability benefits. She keeps them active and involved in church and school, with good grades, aimed at getting into college.

Fornett has asthma, bronchitis and thyroid problems. She had back surgery in June 2009 and a month later, after suffering severe chest pains, had emergency open-heart surgery. Fornett also cares for her ailing mother, who lives in Chicago, a city she left to get away from the crime.

Fornett has a routine she follows religiously, getting up at 5 a.m. every weekday and going to bed around 7 p.m. She gets her boys up a half-hour later, with breakfast on the table. She said it’s not unusual to smell the stink of marijuana in the hallways of her apartment building.

“I’ve reported it,” she said, referring to the smoke. “I don’t give any names. I don’t know any names. They come out, and they don’t catch anybody. The police say they can’t do anything about it unless they catch them.”

Fornett has taught her sons how to cook. They each have chores to do in the house. She said they come in each day and do their homework. On Fridays, her Hammond High School sophomore does the laundry, and Fornett will iron. She said the twins rotate cleaning the kitchen, including the dishes, and sweeping and mopping the floor.

“I’m teaching them how to be men,” she said. “Everything is 50/50 in a relationship. They need to know how to pull their own weight.”

Fornett, who got divorced last year, said her ex-husband isn’t very involved in her children’s lives. But her goal is to keep them busy, and she does that. They all have after-school activities. The twins swim; her sophomore is in ROTC. They go to the library, play basketball and participate in summer activities. She picks them up and takes them everywhere. Fornett also is involved at school and helps in the classroom with other parents.

She said they’ll have an opportunity to participate in a program at Purdue University Calumet this year.

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