The economic downturn hits home — hardWritten by Julia Merchant
The trickle down effect from the national economic downturn is starting to feel more like a flood to agencies in Western North Carolina, which report being inundated with people hurting from layoffs and foreclosures.
“We’re absolutely slammed — it’s more than we can handle,” said Kim Cunningham, food and nutrition services supervisor for the Department of Social Services in Swain County. The number of people receiving food stamps in Swain has risen 14.5 percent since Jan. 1 of this year, the rising need a result of layoffs by the county’s largest manufacturers and a slowdown in construction.
Each western county has seen double digit increases in the numbers receiving food stamps, the largest across the board increase in recent memory.
“This is definitely the highest it’s ever been. We’re going out the roof,” reported Al Hudson, program administrator for the Haywood County Department of Social Services, where the number receiving food stamps has risen nearly 15 percent since November of last year.
Nonprofits also report being swamped with people seeking help. Haywood Christian Ministries saw 86 new clients last month needing assistance with food and fuel — last year, the agency would only help 40 new clients a month, according to director Lisa James.
The Community Table in Sylva, a soup kitchen, used to give out maybe one cardboard box filled with food items a month, says director Amy Grimes-McClure. Now, they dole out 25 in that same period.
Many reeling from job cuts
Perhaps most striking, say agency leaders, is the number of new people needing help who have never had to ask for assistance before.
This fact really hit home for Cunningham during a distribution day in December when basic commodities were given out – the largest such event the Swain D.S.S. has ever had.
“We realized for the first time there were so many faces of people we did not recognize,” said Cunningham. “We’re a small community, and usually we know everybody.”
Job losses have rocked the region and are the primary factor behind the number of first-timers seeking assistance.
“We’re hearing of new layoffs everyday, and I’m afraid we’re only at the tip of the iceberg,” said Lisa James, director of Haywood Christian Ministries.
Unemployment rose in all seven western counties between October of 2007 and October of this year, according to statistics provided by the Employment Security Commission. The worst off is Cherokee County, where nearly one out of every 10 residents doesn’t have a job.
One of the hardest hit industries in the mountains has been construction. Building permits for new single family homes have shriveled to half of what they were a year ago in Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain, according to permitting departments in those counties.
“We’ve had a couple construction folks who’ve said at this time last year they were making $20 an hour, and this year they can’t pay their electric bill,” said Patsy Dowling, director of the non-profit Mountain Projects in Haywood and Jackson counties.
The effect has rippled through many different sectors.
“It reverberates,” said Bob Cochran, director of Jackson County D.S.S. “If they’re not building houses, then the suppliers and the surveyors and the bulldozers, all of them are affected by it down the line.”
Cunningham has seen the impact play out in Swain.
“There’s no building going on, and a lot of people around here are self-employed as carpenters and things like that,” she said.
The service sector — retailers, restaurants, and the many other businesses that cater to tourists — is another suffering industry.
“I think there’s an overall belt tightening across the region, and fewer people are making discretionary trips to our area,” said Cochran. “We’re in a service economy, and a lot of our jobs are affected by discretionary spending. When people get nervous, they tend to stay home.”
Those without jobs are finding it tough to get one.
“There’s no work — people just aren’t hiring,” said Cunningham.
WNC has historically had a competitive job market, and now the pickings have become even slimmer. Grimes-McClure said some of her newest clients at the Community Table are a family that recently moved to the Sylva area and can’t find work.
“We’re in a rural area so the job situation isn’t great even in the best of economic times, but now it’s really, really bad,” she said.
The changing face of need
As need increases across the region, the demographic of people seeking outside help is shifting.
“We’re starting to see folks with significant assets come in, and that reflects that they’ve been in more of a middle class lifestyle,” said Cochran. “Folks are coming in with large homes and even multiple cars and boats. These are folks that have been living a different level of lifestyle and are now sitting on hard times.”
Agencies report that increasingly, people are finding themselves very suddenly unable to make ends meet.
“We are seeing a lot of emergencies — people who have more money coming out than coming in,” said Cunningham. “It’s common to get quite a few of those, but now it’s just about everybody that walks through.”
And it’s not just the situations that are different, but the types of people. Lisa James of Haywood Christian Ministries reports that there’s been an uptick in the number of Spanish-speaking migrant workers, some of them illegal, walking through the doors of her organization. Many of them work in the construction industry where jobs are hard to come by.
Grimes-McClure says her core group has generally consisted of elderly on fixed income, people with disabilities, recovering addicts and individuals simply having a tough time making ends meet. But lately, she’s noticed more families getting a meal or food items from the Community Table.
“Lately we’ve had whole families,” she said. “Most that come in for food boxes have kids at home.”