Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Look at Economic Stability
Georgia Mattison, PPUF Staff

The current economic reality has become one of dangerous instability in terms of housing, health care, income/jobs, and social services/food.

Housing: Unregulated mortgage companies, unlike banks who are highly regulated, have given out loans to people without telling them the hidden future higher payment resulting in foreclosures linked to a depression in the global economy. One in over 500 hundred homeowners is now in foreclosure and that number is expected to rise. (NY Times, September 25, 2007) The increased size of the monthly rent or mortgage check represents the “increasing economic risk people are assuming as housing comes to represent more and more of the typical household budget.” (Jacob S. Hacker, “The Great Risk Shift”)

“Housing is insurmountable for most of our shelter residents. We are building our own affordable housing as the available stock is pretty minimal,” reports Stasia Lopopolo, Director, Sojourner House in Roxbury. Original centers of large scale affordable housing like Columbia Point in Dorchester are changing the rules little by little to exclude low-income families according to Sister Joyce McMullen of Project Care and Concern.

Healthcare: Employer- based health insurance and employer-based pensions are now part of a “bygone” era according to Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (NY TIMES, 8/1/07) Not surprisingly the number of uninsured has reached 47 million in the US. (NY Times, 7/29/07) The American Cancer Society now says the primary cause for the lack of progress in cancer cessation is “inadequate health coverage.” Much of this health care coverage that must be covered more and more by the individual remains inadequate.

Income/Jobs: “The increase in costs for utilities, rent, transportation, communication (phone, internet) child care cannot be covered with incomes of unskilled or minimally skilled work. There are few labor unions, few factories, just extreme low level skilled jobs and now even the military is not an option for unskilled workers.” (Stasia Lopopolo, Sojouner House) The median income is less than it was in 2000. While wages are up slightly it is because Americans are working more hours, not because of wage increases. (NY Times, 7/29/07)

Stasia Lopopolo’s agency, because of the paucity of publicly funded job training and job readiness programs, has made its own job training alliances with local health centers. Sojouner House must work to overcome shelter residents lack of work experience and on the job skills. The vulnerability from lack of work experience extends also into the middle class. Statia Lopopolo comments: “A lot of young men and women don’t have a skill base. It’s becoming a more and more difficult environment to have no skill base.”

The Criminal Offenders Record Information CORI is required for all formal employment and for benefit eligibility. As the CORI records all contact with the criminal justice system no matter how serious or benign and is never expunged, job opportunities are limited to family businesses or “under the table” employment. The 1 out of 236 Americans who are currently incarcerated is the highest rate in the western world. (NY Times, 5/22/06)

Social services/food: Social Services are becoming more and more limited from the public sector and private agencies are scrambling to fill in the gaps. Welfare ceased to be an entitlement program in 1996. Eligibility is now for only two years.

Other services meet clients with even less accessibility. The Boston Food Bank is building a new warehouse to double their private food distribution from 26 million to 50 million pounds a year (Boston Globe 8/20/07) as the commonwealth of Massachusetts continues to dig out from an ignominious 51st in the country in Food Stamp participation. At a recent Food Stamp Improvement Coalition meeting advocates were reporting on the almost criminal examples of illegal denials of food stamp benefits. For example military families who get paid so little that they are eligible for food stamps were being dumped off the program if a spouse were getting combat pay in Iraq. This contravenes a widely known law that says combat pay is not counted as income for benefits or taxes.

One of the terrible exclusions in the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 was the elimination of welfare and other benefits for LEGAL immigrants. States can fund welfare and food stamps out of their own funds. The advocacy community is in currently another difficult restoration campaign to make legal immigrants eligible for welfare and food stamp benefits. This effort is prodded by the fact that private agencies cannot cope with the great need crisis that this exclusion causes.

Stasia Lopopolo and Sister Joyce McMullen of Sojourner House and Project Care and Concern respectively have been reporting at PPUF Board of Directors meetings the increasing violence and homicide rates where their agencies are located. Lack of safety interferes with the accomplishment of their agencies’ missions. The economic instability caused by safety problems, continuing inadequate government assistance, monitoring and accessibility, and the increasing lack employer participation in benefits and job security have put impossible pressures from families in more and more urgent need on non-profit agencies.