More in poverty as social services cutPublished 9:15pm Tuesday, December 11, 2012
In Berrien County, many organizations helping the needy are struggling to keep up with demand.
“We have seen an increase of families needing assistance,” said Pat Saxton, director of the Niles Christian Service Center. “Normally, we help somewhere around 130 to 150 families a month, but, this year, we are averaging about 25 extra families per month. In October, we helped about 160, and, in November, it was 185.”
Saxton attributed the increase to unemployment benefits running out and families moving back into the area that had left hoping to find work elsewhere.
With his 2010 state budget, Gov. Snyder began making significant cuts to social programs in Michigan. One of the cuts created a cap on welfare benefits that is set at 48 months and was retroactive for those families receiving state services.
According to a 2011 survey conducted by The Center for Civil Justice, 1 in 5 households in Michigan don’t always have enough money for food. Their food budgets are being sacrificed to pay for housing, transportation costs, utility bills and daycare.
In a recent article written by Judy Putnam for the Michigan League for Public Policy, the poverty rate in Michigan rose again last year to 17.5 percent, up from 16.8 percent in 2010. Since 2001, poverty has risen 66 percent in Michigan and the rate for children has risen by 34 percent.
The median household income has dropped by 20 percent during the past 10 years and Michigan has seen the largest increase in poverty in the country.
“Michigan leaders have been busy dismantling the public programs and structures designed to get families with children through tough times. These new numbers show that we are going in the wrong direction by pulling the rug out from under struggling households,” says Gilda Z. Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Human Services.
Scott Lolmaugh, volunteer coordinator for the Salvation Army in Niles, says the organization also is seeing an increase in people needing assistance.
The center’s Lunch Brunch program that normally fed about 30 people a day is now seeing 50 to 60.
Some of the reasons for the increase are food prices going up and families having their Food Assistance Benefits and government financial services cut off as they reach the lifetime cap, according Lolmaugh.
Many are the working poor are struggling with other issues such as not having enough gas to get back and forth to work or having their utilities shut off because of an inability to pay and having to use money from their food budgets to make up the difference. Still others are seeking help from the Salvation Army to bridge the gap between jobs or are waiting to receive that first pay check.
Lolmaugh has also noticed a growing segment of new clients that have been going to school because of loss of employment and have now graduated and the jobs are not there.
The Salvation Army has also been receiving 40 to 70 calls a month from families looking for utility assistance.
The organization has been unable to meet the demand because of program cuts at the state and federal level.
The Community Food Link, a tri county nonprofit entity of the United Way of Southwest Michigan is an organization that finds food services for clients in their local areas and has also seen a growing need in families asking for services.
According to the president of Food Link, Anna Murphy, the nonprofit is receiving 75 to 100 calls a day from people who are being referred to them from other agencies throughout Southwest Michigan. Even though the organization is currently able to meet the demand, about half of those calling are new referrals.
“There are just so many people in need right now. It’s keeping us pretty busy matching families with services.”
Art Fenrick, executive director of Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency, says, to some degree, the need will always exceed the resources when it comes to helping those struggling with poverty. But in this difficult economy, the pie is getting smaller and smaller. Funding from the state government is shrinking, and it is difficult to replace those resources.
“I’ve been in human services since 1990, and these are the most challenging times that I’ve seen. We just try to function day by day and do the best we can to meet the need,” he said.
One of the ways the agency meets demand is fostering relationships with other agencies. The Department of Human Services, various civic and religious groups are banding together to meet the challenges.
Recently, The Community Action Agency partnered with Southwest Michigan Family Broadcasting and other local businesses for the Stuff the Truck program that yielded 10 trucks full of food and Fenrick said he hopes it will be enough to last until spring. But traffic for the agency is up 15 to 20 percent and there is no sign of it diminishing.
“The 48 month state benefits cap and the unemployment cap here in Michigan have just exacerbated an already tough situation. Even though unemployment nationally is going down, the folks in our local area are just not seeing any improvement in the economy,” said Fenrick, explaining he worries the country will go off the fiscal cliff, which will cause even more drastic cuts to their services but is hopeful rational minds will prevail.