Washington Post, May 2, 2008: Economic Troubles Multiply Requests for Help in D.C. Area

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By Chris L. Jenkins

Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, May 2, 2008; A01

The sagging economy and spike in food and energy prices are driving sharp increases in requests for government assistance in the Washington region, officials said.

The increases are particularly pronounced in the region’s more affluent suburbs as more working-class families seek help, officials said. In Fairfax County, requests for food stamps were up 17 percent between July and March compared with the same period a year ago. In Montgomery County, requests for help in paying utility bills are up 18 percent over last year. Applications for food stamps and Medicaid in Arlington County have risen 25 percent over last year, officials said.

“People are really vulnerable now,” said Susanne Eisner, Arlington’s director of human services. “These spikes in gas, food and energy prices are having a devastating effect . . . on poor, working families.”

In many cases, those seeking help find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Manassas resident Arlene Garner, 37, applied for food stamps for the first time a few weeks ago. She was laid off from her $43,000-a-year accounting job in Fairfax after Thanksgiving.

Garner said she was denied unemployment benefits and has been living off her savings. Her daughter, a child-care worker and part-time college student who lives with her, helps pay some household bills while Garner looks for a job. Last week, Garner visited a Manassas social services agency, seeking help with paying for her electricity, which was about to be disconnected. She had discontinued cable and land-line phone service to save money.

“It’s the first time since my son was a year old that I’ve been on any kind of assistance,” Garner said, referring to her now-18-year-old son. “It sounds typical, but you never think it’s going to happen to you. I’m sure I’ll be on my feet soon.”

In Montgomery, requests for food stamps increased 17 percent in the first three months of the year; Loudoun County experienced a 27 percent increase during the same period. Applications are up 21 percent in Prince George’s County, 12 percent in Prince William County and 6 percent in the District.

Higher food prices affect low-income families more severely because they tend to spend a larger portion of their pretax income on food, about 17 percent, and feel price increases more acutely, according to the Congressional Research Service. The average U.S. household spends about 12 percent of its pretax income on food.

The federal government predicts that food prices will rise as much as 4.5 percent this year, and gas prices are at record highs, so the slowing economy has compounded problems for those struggling to make it in one of the costliest areas in the country.

“Very often, people need two or three jobs to live here and often can’t make a poverty wage with the jobs they do work, and they need a number of different systems and programs to help support their lives here,” said Verdia L. Haywood, deputy Fairfax County executive.

Although the region’s unemployment rate remains below the national average, it has been difficult for some low-wage workers to find the second and third jobs that often are needed to cobble together enough to cover expenses, officials said.

“That’s the biggest change I think we’ve seen,” said Howard Feldstein, director of the Arlington Employment Center, which has noted a 27 percent increase in the number of people looking for work compared with the first part of last year. “Those extra jobs just aren’t there right now. It has a direct impact on people’s lives.”

Many of the increases reflect national trends. In March, the Congressional Budget Office predicted that a record 28 million Americans will rely on food stamps monthly in the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Largely paid for by the federal government, food stamps are an entitlement program, with eligibility guidelines set by Congress. To qualify, recipients must have incomes below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or less than $22,880 for a family of three.

In the high-rent D.C. region, several jurisdictions offer housing aid and emergency one-time grants for low-income and working-poor people who need immediate financial help. These funds help pay rent and utility bills and prevent evictions.

In Arlington, applications for the county’s housing grant program for renters are up 17 percent over last year, and officials recently reallocated almost $640,000 from programs that help moderate-income homeowners to those that defray rising costs for needier households. Fairfax housing assistance requests are up sharply, and mortgage aid inquiries are expected to rise 42 percent over last year. Prince George’s also faces big increases in applications.

“What we’re seeing mainly is people who have rising costs elsewhere, and that’s putting pressure on their ability to pay the rent and other basic household priorities,” said Uma Ahluwalia, Montgomery’s director of human services. “These aren’t people at risk of foreclosure. They are at risk of homelessness.”

At a Montgomery social services office in Silver Spring last week, Jackie Thorns, 39, checked to make sure she had brought all the documents she needed to apply for free financial counseling and utility-bill help. Her documents included a $361 electric bill from February.

“I’ve already applied for food stamps and been denied for those,” Thorns, a homemaker, said, explaining that her husband, a truck driver, had just returned to work after being unemployed for three months. “I figured I’d give it another shot with the light bill.”

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