El Paso Times, May 4, 2008: Special Report: $14 a day one year later

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By Ramon Bracamontes / El Paso Times

Article Launched: 05/04/2008 12:00:00 AM MDT

The gap between those El Pasoans living in poverty and those who are not is widening as price increases for necessities such as milk, eggs and gasoline put a major strain on low-income households, experts say.

In 2007, it was estimated that more than 200,000 El Pasoans lived in poverty. While that figure officially remains unchanged because no new U.S. Census data is available, people who work with the poor and keep an eye on the economy say that number might have increased in the past year.

“Prices in the past year have gone up; we all know that,” said University of Texas at El Paso economics Professor Tom Fullerton. “The big question is whether incomes have also gone up.”

While the per capita income in the United States and El Paso between 2007 and 2008 increased by 3.6 percent, the price of goods also increased 3.3 percent, according to federal data. However, the income increases probably did not trickle down to people living on fixed incomes or in poverty.

“In recent years, net income gains have occurred only for higher-income households,” Fullerton said.

“This means the higher prices for these basic commodities are probably eroding the standard of living for low-income households.”

According to federal poverty guidelines, a family of four had to make more than $20,650 in 2007 to escape poverty. These families had $14 a day per family member to spend.

To escape poverty in 2008, a family of four must now be make more than $21,200 in income, or have more than $14.50 a day per family member to spend.

Experts say those making minimum wage who were were able to increase their pay over the year still might have been hurt by price increases.

Among the major price increases in the past 12 months are:

# A gallon of milk now costs about 80 cents more.

# A dozen eggs now costs about 46 cents more.

# And a gallon of unleaded gasoline now costs nearly $1.10 more than a year ago.

“A dollar from 2007 is now worth about 97 cents,” Fullerton said.

El Pasoan Blanca Mora-Chavez said this year has been tough to deal with, especially because of the rising costs.

“Even if you get a raise, it is not enough to keep up,” she said before walking into the Thrift Store on Doniphan Drive in the Upper Valley. “You have to find a way to cope, even if it means buying from different types of stores. You have to change things a little.”

Barbara Butts, executive director of the McCall Neighborhood Center, which works with the county on a free lunch program, said she now has more elderly people coming in to eat.

“And most of them walk to the center now,” Butts said. “Before, our parking lot would be full at lunch. Not anymore.”

The other concern, Butts said, is that people are calling her asking for help to pay their utility bills.

Tony Natera, executive director of the El Paso County General Assistance office, said the number of people contacting his agency looking for help in paying utility bills or for other emergencies has gone up steadily in the past year.

“The range of people needing help is changing,” Natera said. “We are seeing families now that we wouldn’t have seen five or six years ago. In most cases, one of the two income earners lost his or her job and they need temporary help because they can’t maintain their standard of living.”

In fiscal year 2006, 8,499 people applied for assistance from the county office. In 2007, 9,633 people applied for help.

But a bigger increase is occurring this year, when in the first six months of the fiscal year, 5,208 families applied for help.

Lower Valley resident Jorge Casillas, a construction worker, said that while work for him has remained steady in the past year, wages aren’t going up, making it tougher to make ends meet.

“I have a small child, and if it wasn’t for the help we get from the government, it would be tough to live,” Casillas said. “I guess I could get two jobs if needed.”

Ray Tullius, executive director at the Opportunity Center, said he, too, has seen an increase in the number of people coming in and asking for help. The Opportunity Center offers temporary housing for those who have become homeless.

“Most of these people have lived in El Paso for several years,” Tullius said. “They are not just passing through.”

University of Texas at El Paso sociology Professor Cheryl Howard said people today don’t feel they are better off than they were a year ago.

“The increase in gas prices affects El Paso disproportionately,” she said. “The overall state of our society with regard to poverty issues is not good, in my opinion. We have greater income inequality.”

Ramon Bracamontes may be reached at; 546-6142.

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