Linda Tataliba, who runs the State College Area Food Bank, says the working poor are a growing segment of her clientele. photo by Alanna Pawlowski
By Alanna Pawlowski
Walking among the bustling shops, relatively affluent students and gainfully-employed workers in Centre County are those who are still struggling to stay up in a down economy.
An examination of government and community agencies across the county reveals a more detailed story than either unemployment rates or annual income can tell, a story of housing shortages, inadequate wages, limited access to healthcare, and struggles to get food on the table. It is a story laced with themes of budget cuts and waitlists and people who, for the first time, are having trouble making ends meet.
“People used to come in just needing temporary help because of seasonal employment,” said Tammy Gentzel, Executive Director of the Centre County United Way. “Now they’re coming in and saying I’ve just lost my job, I need help with rent, food, utilities. The need of those presenting is just much broader.”
The Centre County United Way has approximately 40 partner agencies, and Gentzel said she has seen a trend in reduced state and federal funding for them.
“Many of our partner agencies had to scramble to keep services in place,” said Gentzel. “That means cutting back by not rehiring staff, cutting back on travel, office supplies. In the short term, they can handle that, but in the long term, it’s going to hurt their ability to provide quality services.”
In order to help its partner agencies cope with cuts in state and federal funding, Centre County United Way is in the midst of a campaign to raise $2.2 million, a slight increase from last year’s goal.
“To Centre County’s great fortune, most of [our partner agencies] haven’t had to cut services,” Gentzel said. “But that eventuality is right around corner.”
Such budgetary woes and high demand for services are often overlooked in Centre County, where the nickname “Happy Valley” invokes an image of a land buffered from recessions.
Despite some of that economic resiliency, in the past year, the unemployment rate in the county increased by 0.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meaning that 630 more people are jobless now than were in 2009. The county does have the lowest unemployment rate in the state, at 7 percent as of July 2010, but posted the highest poverty rate in the state, nearly 20 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest survey data released Sept. 28.
Centre County is ranked last in the state in affordable housing, according to a report this year by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. The ranking comes despite years of organizing by the Centre County Affordable Housing Coalition, and accolades to the local daily paper for its support of the issue. The recession hasn’t helped. August saw a doubling of housing repossessions in the county, according to Realty Trac which monitors foreclosures, and the number is rising.
Rentals aren’t any better. The median monthly rent in the county is higher than the established Fair Market Rent values for every unit size, based on estimates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Rentals continue to be extremely difficult to find,” said Natalie Corman, chairman of the Centre County Affordable Housing Coalition. “We seem to get less and less opportunity to find rent within an affordable range, that has been a struggle in our community.”
Corman said demand for rental properties has been increasing and the coalition’s member agencies have also seen an increase of people looking for help. She has been noticing more about the people who come to the coalition seeking assistance.
“I think we continue to see what the national level has seen, where the stereotype of not working just isn’t true,” Corman said. “Unfortunately, the homeless and near homeless population does work. We’re seeing more people who work but can’t afford housing based on what they make.”
The shortage in affordable housing in the county can be attributed to a number of factors, Corman said. One, especially in the State College area, is student housing, which can be conducive to having roommates and more people to share costs. For example, a three-person family may need a two-bedroom unit, but four students can easily fit into two bedrooms, making it more affordable for them, she explained.
“It is a combination of our economy, obviously, our environment—meaning the university and students—and other factors that come together to make things very difficult,” said Corman.
Another trend that members of the coalition have noticed is multigenerational homes, or what they call “doubling up” with relatives in order to save money on rent.
Jane Taylor, director of the Centre County Office on Aging, said she has noticed a similar trend.
“What we see more of is people who are helping younger family members, allowing them to move in,” Taylor said. “But we only see it if it becomes an issue, if people are being financially exploited.”
Taylor has not noticed any increased demand for the office’s services, but she has seen the impacts of reduced funding.
“More people are saying they need help with housekeeping. We are no longer able to do that, and that’s directly related to federal and state aid,” Taylor said.
The Office on Aging currently has a waiting list for personal care services intended for people not sick enough to enter a nursing home, but who still need assistance.
The theme of reduced funding and waiting lists is one that appears often throughout the county.
The Centre County Housing Authority opened its waiting list Sept. 15 for the Section 8 Rental Assistance Program for the first time in nearly three years, and lines formed down the street of people needing assistance. When the list was closed in 2007, there were 400 people on it. The Housing Authority has 624 total rental vouchers, but it is able to help only eight to 10 people each month from the waitlist, because someone has to leave an affordable housing unit before another is let in, said Randy Holderman, director of the housing authority.
“I wish I had more vouchers, but they don’t come running; it costs money,” Holderman said. “I know there’s a big need out there. I get calls every day from people in need of housing. I know there’s a shortage.”
Holderman echoed much of Corman’s outlook on the causes of the lack of affordable housing and of the impact the university and students have on housing prices.
“Penn State helps us in a way, and hurts us—well, State College really—because of student housing. It makes it tough,” Holderman said.
He added that while Penn State does drive up student housing and rental rates, it indirectly helps when the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) looks at the county to find out the pricing for a typical housing unit. HUD provides funding to the housing authority and determines the qualifications for affordable housing. The somewhat inflated rates can make it easier for those who live in the outskirts to get housing vouchers, Holderman said.
“Also, if you took Penn State out of the equation, things would be a lot cheaper, but you wouldn’t have some of the jobs,” Holderman said. “There are hardly any jobs unless you have a job at Penn State, but most people have part-time or two or three jobs. There just aren’t a lot of higher paying jobs out there.”
The housing authority currently helps mostly those who make less than 50 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), however a new tax credit property will soon allow it to serve a broader income range. Tax credits are federal tax reductions given to developers who provide a certain percentage of low-income housing on a property. The housing authority started working with S&A Homes on the tax credit due to lowered funding from 2000 to 2008 from HUD. The development is set to open in April 2011 and will offer 40 additional two, three- and four-bedroom units next to Beaver Farm Apartments in Bellefonte.
Those units will be available to people making up to 60 percent of AMI, which is $27,900 per year. Holderman said the housing authority has been wanting to do a program like this because it will open up their services to more people.
“Those at 50 percent or 60 percent are still people in need of affordable housing,” Holderman said. “That isn’t all that much income really. We’re still helping people.”
Other agencies have also noticed demand from residents whose income is close to, but not below, the cut-off for low-income services.
Nearly one-fourth of the counties in Pennsylvania have an average personal yearly income greater than that in Centre County, home of Penn State University and its $15.8 million in federal stimulus funds and $333.8 million in total government funds.
Much of that funding is not trickling down, however, and even a seemingly average wage is no longer enough for many in the county. Part of the explanation for this can be found by exploring the area’s living wage. Penn State’s Living Wage Calculator was developed by Prof. Amy Glasmeier, now a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to reflect the wage rate required to meet the minimum estimated cost of living for low wage families. It also provides average wage information for specific job areas. The calculator notes that the estimates for an area do not reflect a middle class standard of living.
In Centre County, eight out of the 22 occupational areas identified pay a median hourly wage below the calculated living wage for one adult to support one child, and three of them pay just enough for one adult to live minimally.
When compared with the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s 2009 numbers on employment by occupation, it becomes clear that some of the largest industries are the ones who pay employees the least. More specifically, of the five occupational categories that employ the most people in Centre County, four of them—office and administrative support, production, food preparation and serving related, and sales and related—pay below the living wage for one adult and one child, the latter two of which don’t even pay the living wage for one adult.
The median personal income in the county, $30,930 in 2009, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, is enough to cover the living wage for a single adult or for two adults. However, based on the calculator, it is not sufficient to provide for one adult and one child or for two adults and one child.
Yet the percentage of single mothers with young children in poverty has soared from 40 percent to 60 percent of the county total in poverty, according to the U.S. Census.
Even the few local workers protected by a union contract are feeling the pressure. At last year’s contract negotiations between Penn State and Teamsters Local Union No. 8, which represents an estimated 2,600 workers at the university, the Teamsters agreed to defer some of their 3 percent wage increase until February 2010 in order to help the university with its budget, said Jon Light, president of the union. In exchange, Teamster members received a one-year extension to their contract, a 1 percent raise in July and another 1.25 percent raise to go into effect in February 2011.
“We helped them out, they gave us another year—we know the economy hasn’t bounced back yet,” Light said. “This next contract is all about healthcare and wages; it’s going to be the hardest contract negotiation because everybody’s hurting.”
Healthcare costs for next year are set to go up by 12 percent, Light said. “These people are going to be getting their 1.25 percent in February, but that 12 percent increase in healthcare pretty much takes all of that away.”
Access to healthcare has been playing an increased role all across the county. This year, Centre Volunteers in Medicine has seen nearly 5,200 more patients than in 2009. CVIM is a non-profit that provides uninsured residents that meet certain eligibility criteria free access to primary and preventive medical and dental care.
Over the past two years, the number of people who receive medical assistance from the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare has also increased. In 2008, 7.8 percent, or just over 11,000 Centre County residents, received assistance. In 2009 that number grew to 8.1 percent, and this year it reached 8.5 percent, or 12,387 residents.
“The rate is creeping up slowly but inexorably,” said Hugh Daly, executive director of Central Pennsylvania Community Action. “This reflects the working poor, those eligible because they don’t make enough money or don’t have employers who cover [health care].”
Workers whose employers do supply healthcare are feeling the pinch too. Nationally, the burden of the cost is being transferred increasingly to workers. Penn State employees, for example, see that trend continuing in their benefits with recent notice of higher costs in some benefits.
The State College Area School District is also seeing more families apply for free or reduced meals for their children.
“It seems to be that this year we have a lot more applying who aren’t eligible based on their income,” said Megan Schaper, food service director for the district. “The people who were being declined are not being so because of thousands and thousands of dollars; they’re in the neighborhood of being eligible. To me this says families are trying to find any place to save a little bit of money.”
Schaper noted that the USDA did not have its income guidelines for free and reduced meals available in time for them to be listed when the school district sent out the applications, so some of the increase might be due to families being unaware that they were over the income limit.
In addition to the number of people who have been turned down, the number of eligible students has also been increasing over the past three years. In 2007, 14.3 percent of students were eligible for either free or reduced meals. The next year it was up to 15.2 percent, and in 2009, 16.1 percent of students were eligible, Schaper said. Total numbers for 2010 will be released in November.
Not all families have to apply for the meal discount directly. Through the USDA’s direct certification program, children whose families receive food stamps or cash assistance are automatically enrolled to receive free meals.
Last year, just over 450 students were eligible through direct certification, and this year that number is up to 511 students.
“That’s a pretty good jump for just one school year,” Schaper said.
But the crisis is evident community-wide as well.
Community Action has seen increases in the number of people it is serving through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as Food Stamps, and its food banks. Daly said the figures for SNAP are rising dramatically, from 4.1 percent of county residents being eligible in 2008, to 5 percent in 2009, and now 5.7 percent in 2010. A similar story is true in their food banks.
“Demand has just gone through the roof for these services,” Daly said. “We’re feeding twice as many people as we were four years ago.”
Some of that increased demand is coming from people in the age range of 50 to 65, Daly said.
“If you’ve lost a job, it’s a lot harder to find a job at that age, so they would be working and making more money to get food stamps, but there’s just no work,” Daly said.
Even for many residents who still have jobs it can be difficult to afford basic needs with Centre County’s above average housing prices, rising costs and a living wage that is out of reach in many occupations.
State College Area Food Bank Executive Director Linda Tataliba said she has seen the main increase in the numbers they serve come from single member and dual member households.
Like Daly, Tataliba mentioned “the working poor.”
“These are people who have lost their jobs but who have no hope of returning or people who used to have full time jobs with benefits but are now just part time,” Tataliba said. “They’re working, but still falling under the 150 percent [of Federal Poverty Guidelines] because of low wages, or lacking healthcare.”
Anyone who makes less than $16,242 annually falls below 150 percent of poverty guidelines. That stands in contrast to the Living Wage Calculator’s estimate of $18,579 being the income that one adult needs to live a low-income lifestyle in Centre County.
“These folks are proud folks,” said Tataliba, referring to the working poor. She said they have first tapped into family resources and anything they can to avoid the food bank, but at some point they have no other choice but to use it in order to free up other money.
The Food Bank helps more than 800 people in that situation each month, approximately 15 to 20 percent more than last year.
Tataliba said 42 percent of food bank recipients are actually children under the age of 18, up 4 percent from last year.
Despite the increased demand across the board and a delay in state food purchase dollars, Tataliba said the food bank has been able to keep up with the need due to individual donations as well as support from programs and businesses.
As a result, it has been able to increase both the quality of food it provides and the amount that is given out to people.
“Our services allow people to eat more healthy and not have to choose between medical expenses or bills and food,” Tataliba said. “That’s the dilemma people are faced with.”