Recession can be even tougher for low-income familiesby Annie Baxter, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — Families of every economic stripe have had a tough time during the recession, and recovering may take a long time. For those who were already living on the financial edge before the recession hit, the economic blows can be even more punishing.
If the recession has pulled the rug out from under people, it has pulled the rug, the floorboards and whole foundation out from under a woman we'll call Cheryl. She asked us to use a pseudonym because she's ashamed that she, her husband, and four daughters are homeless and has been keeping it a secret.
"None of my family knows my situation right now, Cheryl said through tears. "They talk about me and stuff so I [would] just rather be by myself and do it by myself."
Until last winter, she and her husband were actually getting by okay. Cheryl, 26, worked as a school bus driver. Her husband was able to find temp work, despite a criminal background.
Money was tight, but their budget was manageable.
Then things got complicated. Due to the recession, her husband's temp work dried up.
Plus, Cheryl was pregnant. The one-month-old baby she cradles in her arms today is healthy, but the pregnancy was extremely trying; she suffered unrelenting morning sickness.
"I was in the hospital for weeks at a time, so I lost my job, which resulted in me not being able to pay my rent," she said.
Unemployment insurance and food stamps helped some, but then the family was evicted at the end of April.
Cheryl is part of a growing number of families who are losing their homes in the recession.
She and her daughters landed at a homeless shelter in North Minneapolis, but Cheryl said her husband was too proud to go to a shelter and slept in the car.
"He didn't want to come in, and now he sees how stressed I am," she said. "My hair fell out a lot and everything, and he said I'll come in to help you with the kids."
That hasn't happened yet and may not because the shelter does not admit felons.
Leslie Frost, the executive director of Families Moving Forward, which runs the shelter, sees a lot of low-income families in similar situations.
When middle-class families experience housing problems, possibly losing a home to foreclosure, they typically become renters. But when low-income renters hit the skids, Frost said they may enter a very stressful period of homelessness because they can't find cheaper housing.
"The recession has meant that the families that are in affordable housing are not moving out, because they can't get better jobs and better incomes and graduate, so the affordable housing market is in gridlock," Frost said. "The low end of rental housing is at zero vacancy."
Shelters around the metro area are reporting higher demand and longer stays during the recession. At the same time, their own budgets are tightening. Families Moving Forward feared having to shutdown due to declining revenues. Frost said they laid off staff and are turning away nearly 300 families a month.
"It would normally mean 1,000 people; almost 400 of them under the age of six, less than 400 adults and the rest school age kids," Frost said.
Many other indicators show the recession is squeezing poor Minnesotans. Stacy Dean, with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said food stamp usage has been rising in Minnesota.
"Between March 2008 and March 2009, Minnesota's case load grew by 14 percent" Dean said.
That's about 40,000 people.
"The current caseload increase is much more dramatic than in prior years," she said.
That recent increase is nearly three times the jump that the state saw two years before.
Minnesota's recent increase is better than the national average of an 18 percent jump. But experts worry about where Minnesota's poverty indicators are headed.
Craig Helmstetter is a researcher with Wilder Research in St. Paul, which manages information on the homeless for the state. Helmstetter fears that in the recession, the Twin Cities will lose a lot of its historical advantage over the rest of the nation. He said the most recent poverty numbers, from 2007, showed that was already happening.
"Looking at the Twin Cities as a whole, looking back to the past few decennial censuses, 1980, 1990, and 2000, the census poverty rates were 5 to 6 percentage points lower in the Twin Cities than they were nationally," Helmstetter said. "So we were doing better than the nation as a whole in terms of our poverty rates here.
"According to the most recent data, though, the national number [is] around 13.3 percent and we're around 9 percent. So even prior to this recession, we were losing ground compared to the nation as a whole."
And as those numbers jump, experts fear more families will become homeless, as Cheryl's did.
But Cheryl's story does have some bright spots. It looks like the bus company will take her back as a driver this summer, and after a tough search, she found an affordable place to live. The family will move in July.
Cheryl's 11 year-old daughter "Michelle" (which is also not her real name), is excited about the new apartment.
"I'm happy. I can't wait to go, so I can meet new friends, and see what school I'm going to go to and just relax at my house," Michelle said.
Housing funds from the federal stimulus package are expected to start flowing this summer. They're aimed at preventing more families from falling into homelessness. It's unclear how much of a dent they'll make.
- Morning Edition, 06/26/2009, 7:20 a.m.