Lasting effect of economy creates greater stress on local households

Editor’s note: This series is funded by the Marguarite Casey Foundation

Pam G. Dempsey/ — In 2002, food was a lot less expensive.

So was water service and household energy.

The past decade has brought many changes to the nation’s economy – changes that produced a profound and distressing impact on America’s families.

A review of state and federal data shows that:

  • Food prices rose 29 percent over the past decade.
  • It now takes nearly 44 percent more money to cover household energy costs
  • Water and sewer expenses grew nearly 60 percent.
  • Nearly 40 percent more households in Illinois are on food stamps than in 2006. The federal government now spends $2.8 billion in Illinois alone to feed lower-income families.In 2006, it was $1.5 billion.

In Champaign County in Illinois school districts have seen a nearly 60 percent increase in the number of low-income students. And the unemployment rate in Champaign-Urbana grew from 3.9 percent in 2006 to an estimated 8.4 percent in 2011.

In short, one in four Champaign-Urbana families are considered to be in “poverty”. Six years ago, it was one in five families.

Social services programs are seeing new calls for help from working families and other families see little immediate relief. Even with the unemployment rate on a slow decline, families are still struggling.

Nathan Montgomery, executive director of the faith-based food and clothing pantry Salt and Light in Champaign, said about 30 percent of the clients are new families.

“We see a lot of people who have never been to a place like Salt and Light before who now find themselves in line for good and clothing and things like that … it really has to do with the economy,” Montgomery said.

Taiwana Lee knows this first hand.

The 37-year-old nursing assistant made between $36,000 and $40,000 while she worked at the Champaign County nursing home when she became the foster parent for her three young nephews in 2004. Yet, despite supplemental income from the state, meeting basic expenses became tough as food prices increased.

Lee said it would have been better if she had qualified for federal supplemental food assistance, or what is more commonly known as a LINK card.

“At one point in time, I had struggled a lot, like with food because I wasn’t getting a LINK card, so I was buying everything with cash. I would resort to the food pantries, which helped some for the most part,” Lee said.

But Lee could not qualify the benefit in Illinois, because she was making more than the guidelines for the program allowed.

Some monetary pressures eased when Lee’s nephews were reunited with their mother this past August and Lee’s family became a two-person household once again. But other pressures emerged because she had left the nursing home to work for a private company and do work on the side

She now is contemplating returning to school to finish a bachelor’s degree in nursing. But the cost is high and Lee said she would have to give up work and take out loans to afford the degree.

And as of now, Lee doesn’t see the benefit to that.

“By the time I’m out (of college), with the cost of living increases, I’m going to be in so much debt,” Lee.

And a job may not be guaranteed.- not with the unemployment still above 8 percent in Champaign County.

”I don’t care what the economic indicators are or what the markets are saying, the bottom line for most of the people we are serving is it’s all about jobs, are there jobs, are there places for them to get employment and frankly we haven’t seen that growth,” Montgomery said.
Jobs and health care

The loss of jobs also has another effect –  the loss of health care.

“For a lot of people if their health insurance is tied to their work and they lost their work , then many of them lost their health insurance,” said Claudia Lenhoff, executive director of Champaign County Healthcare Consumers, a nonprofit that advocates for better health insurance.

Lenhoff said health insurance costs have increased significantly and this has prompted more employers to stop offering health insurance to their employees or shift more of the costs to employees.

“I think that when you have a nation that so intimately links employment with health insurance coverage, when economic factors affect employment and wages, your inherently going to have a huge problem,” Lenhoff said.

Health insurance has undergone major changes recently under new federal moves, but moves that took “a massive federal government effort,” she said.

“The recession has prevented us with some very grim realities and a grim picture, but I would say that the gradual implementation of health reform – has provided some very important safety nets and coverage opportunities that didn’t exist before with or without the recession,” Lenhoff said.

And, she said, a good health care system is a crucial part of expanding and keeping jobs in America. Especially one that doesn’t require money from employers.

“From public health perspective, so much better if ever person from the United State has coverage, especially if we want to be competitive as a nation in a global market place,” she said.

This series was funded by the Marguerite Casey Foundation.

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