Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Everything 'that could be going wrong is going wrong' in the US

from the Daytona Daily News

By Lynn Hulsey

The people who help the needy try to describe the current economic crisis without using cliches like "perfect storm" or "vicious circle." But they are left grasping for better words.

Unemployment is on the rise, food stamp and cash assistance rolls are growing, home foreclosures are rampant, food pantries are running low, and it's getting harder to afford food, gas and health care.

The signs of growing need are everywhere, with social service and government agencies reporting an influx of people who've never had to ask for help before. And just as the need is growing, cash-strapped governments are cutting back, and the state may need to borrow money from the federal government early next year to pay unemployment claims.

There hasn't been this confluence of events in a long time, and it is unnerving.

"It's very difficult to be optimistic at this time when you look at all the things that are taking place," said Joel Potts, senior policy analyst for the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors Association. "Things are all coming into play at the same time. Every single thing you look at right now that could be going wrong is going wrong."

On top of a badly faltering national economy there's the home mortgage-fueled financial crisis and a newly approved $700 billion government bailout that could divert taxpayer money from needed social programs.

"Whoever becomes the next president is in for a rude awakening," said Chris Duncan, University of Dayton professor and chairman of political science.

He said the promises made by Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama to find new revenue by cutting waste, fraud and abuse "is not going to give you what you need to create a national health care program, to fix education or to fix all the other myriad problems we have."

Ohio, which never fully recovered jobs lost during the 2001 recession, now has its highest unemployment rate since 1992.

Montgomery County's 7.8 percent rate is even higher than the state's 7.4 percent, and the region stands to lose at least 10,000 jobs by next year from the closure of the Moraine General Motors plant and the proposed shift of Wilmington's DHL jobs to Kentucky.

That's on top of the 25,000 manufacturing jobs the region has lost since 2000.

Across the Miami Valley more people are falling into the social services safety net, which officials say is showing the strain. And the net isn't always able to help, because of eligibility limits on income and assets for those receiving cash assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, child care or one-time emergency help with rent, food or heating bills.

"We get a number of people who are requesting assistance but we cannot help them," said Dwayne Woods, employment division administrator at Montgomery County Job and Family Services.

For a family of four, the monthly income limit to receive cash assistance is $844 and the maximum in help they can get is $507 a month, Woods said. The food stamps monthly income limit for a four-person family is $2,297, and that family can receive $588 in stamps for the month, he said.

An applicant's savings and other assets also play into the eligibility calculation and can make an unemployed person ineligible for help.

"They feel that is their nest egg, that they shouldn't have to use it, because they have paid into the system all their lives," Woods said. "They're shocked at the low level of assistance they can receive."

Many people are turning to food pantries.

"We're seeing new families at the food pantries, we're seeing more working families, we are seeing families that really are just struggling to make ends meet with the economy as it is right now," said Linda Roepken, associate executive of The Foodbank, which serves 90 food programs in Montgomery, Greene and Preble counties.

She said the food bank's pantries, soup kitchens and other programs handed out 27 percent more meals in August compared to the same month last year.

At the Catholic Social Services pantry in Dayton, daily calls for help are up from about 30 to 125, said J. Elaine Jelly, executive director.

"We've had days where we have had to say, 'Come back tomorrow.' The shelves are literally empty," said spokeswoman Regina Estep.

She said the people who come in have multiple issues: evictions, foreclosures, lost jobs, health problems. Many seniors have had to choose between medicine and food.

"It's exactly what you read in the statistics," Estep said. "They're coming to life in the food line."

Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food Banks, said the social services safety net is "shredded."

"We are asking these (presidential) candidates, if (they're) elected, to increase funding for the food stamp programs, increase the money allocations to allow people to purchase the food they need," Hamler-Fugitt said. "This is a crisis and we need a government response."

Perhaps one of the most telling statistics, even though it involves small actual numbers, is in upscale Warren County. In June of this year, the county had a 40 percent increase from June 2007 — to 482 people — in the number of people receiving cash assistance under the Ohio Works First program, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Greene County had the second-highest increase in welfare recipients in the four-county area, jumping 12.9 percent. Montgomery's number went up 11.5 percent and Miami's was less than 1 percent.

Link to full article. May expire in future.

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