- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 5, 2016

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Bethany McGhee’s life fell apart the year she buried her son.

In November 2009, McGhee’s other two children, ages 2 and 3, were taken away after a vitriolic court battle. Her husband, the sole provider, went to prison. Soon after, she realized she was pregnant.

The former stay-at-home mom went to work as a waitress, though she barely remembers those days. She would write down step-by-step directions and hold them as she drove to work. If she didn’t, she’d forget where she was going, and why.

There are a variety of reasons that people fall through the cracks, McGhee explained. For her, it was several tragedies hitting at once. For others it’s substance abuse, generational poverty or lack of skills, she said.

In the Cowboy State, one out of five households are living below self-sufficiency, according to a recent study, “Overlooked and Undercounted - Struggling to Make Ends Meet in Wyoming.”

The Wyoming Women’s Foundation report is based on a benchmark similar to the poverty level. But the foundation’s definition of self-sufficiency is more nuanced.

“The standard is the amount of income working families need to meet their basic needs without private or public assistance, and it varies by location and family composition,” according to the study.

It factors in food, health care, child care and regional housing costs. Not meeting the self-sufficiency standard means a household doesn’t bring in enough income to succeed, save and grow.

About 40 percent of Wyoming households that fall under the self-sufficiency standard lack health insurance. About 90 percent have at least one person working, and half have children in the home, according to the study. Proponents hope the study will help public service providers and nonprofits tailor their outreach to the needs in each community.

The data is not shocking, said Deanna Frey, director of Seton House, a transitional housing program in Casper for homeless single parents.

It confirms what social workers and housing providers already know: People are struggling to make ends meet and there are barriers to getting ahead.

“I really want people to know . these are folks who only want the best for their kids,” Frey said of her clients. “They are not lazy. They are not unwilling to work. They are doing the best they can with the skills that they have.”

From social service programs to minimum wage jobs, McGhee has seen how quickly a life can fall apart. She’s been through hell and back, she told the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/29gyh86 ).

She even worked while living at a homeless center. She stayed at Seton House for a time after her son’s death.

McGhee’s journey out of devastation is ongoing. She works at a grocery store in Casper now, but only clocks about 25 hours a week, she said. At $10 an hour, her income is barely enough to keep a roof over her head, but she’s good with money and with planning. Her 6-year-old daughter is in school, but in the summer, McGhee has the added expense of child care. She makes too much to qualify for Medicaid, she said.

“Our folks are struggling because the income that they have is being swallowed by rent, and their basic needs,” Frey explained. “These are folks that are not blowing money on frivolous things. They are trying to make sure their kids are in a safe child care environment.”

People need time to transition, additional job skills and education, she said.

“Housing is wonderful, but without the other skills and the time to obtain those skills, it is going to be much more difficult for them,” she added.

McGhee doesn’t have the money to return to school, but she’s praying for it. She wants to get her master’s degree in counseling. She wants to help people like herself.

“I knew that I could be alive. I just didn’t know how or how long it would take,” she said. “I had to decide.”

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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