Last weekend, I saw a man standing at a traffic light in Hartford. A short handwritten message on a piece of cardboard that hung around his chest proclaimed this person’s homelessness to the world. What struck me was his dignity. As he politely stepped forward to take a note, he carried himself in a way a person who had seen better times would. He seemed like someone who, if given an opportunity, would work hard to put his life back together.
This gentleman got me thinking about the many people in our country who had become poor recently in the face of a tough economy, high unemployment rates and falling inflation-adjusted median household income. Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that the poverty rate had risen to a steep 15.1 percent of the population in 2010. In 2009, 14.3 percent of the population was living below the poverty line, currently set at $22,314 annually for a family of four.
Local charities including food pantries, are reporting an increase in the number of recipients, some of whom have never sought charity in their lives. Beth Stafford, Executive Director and CEO of MACC Charities in Manchester, told me that in the last year, she’s seen a 17 percent increase in the number of people seeking assistance. The recipients earn an average household income of $35,000, well above the federal poverty rate.
She says many are struggling to pay their mortgage and bills, don’t have medical coverage, and are starting to shell out more for their children’s books and field trips at school because the changing economy has affected school budgets.
“We have many families where Dad lost his job and Mom had her hours cut back because of cost reduction measures at the workplace. The problem is they’ve never had to ask for help before. These are people who are bringing a different feel to our food pantry and kitchen — they are angry,” Beth told me.
Beth and her colleagues have been trying to educate this group on the difference between needs and wants.
“We’re trying to tell them that cable, cell phones and credit cards are not necessities. You can manage without cable for two months if you start borrowing movies for viewing from the local library. It’s free, and we’re trying to steer people towards free things. It’s a learning curve for Americans in general about needs and necessities,” she said.
The positive aspect is an increase in the number of volunteers and those who are making donations of smaller denominations.
Beth says people who were laid off are coming in to volunteer their time for a few hours each week. More people are making small sacrifices to spare a little something for others.
For instance, Beth and the MACC staff have cut back on coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts and are instead donating that money to charity. You might not think it’s very much or would go very far. Prepare to be surprised. For $11, MACC can feed a family of four for one entire week. People can choose to help provide food to a family for a week or a whole month — no amount is too small.
I was touched by the story of a 10-year-old girl who couldn’t have had a better name. Grace, a resident of Manchester, was so motivated to “help the homeless” that she put her writing talents into raising money for charity. She is donating all proceeds from the sale of her short anthology of poems, printed in a homemade book bound by ribbons, to MACC.
“Grace has always wanted to do anything to help anyone less fortunate than her. This is her idea. She planned and wrote the book,” her mother Stacey Goldberg-Doyle told me.
The growing need for help has kindled the humanity in children, many of whom are opting to donate to charity instead of receiving birthday gifts.
Diana Goode, Executive Director of Gifts of Love in Avon, says more kids are donating to the organization. Last year, several area companies chose to make donations instead of sending clients a card, a box of chocolates or a paperweight.
“Instead they got a note that said a donation was made on their behalf. I prefer that to getting a paperweight, don’t you think?” Diana asked.
Last year, Gifts of Love helped 11,000 individuals, which is a 25 percent increase from the year before.
Individuals earning more than around $40,000 annually per household can qualify to receive fresh fruits and vegetables once a month for a maximum of 12 months, which is usually all the time they need to get back on their feet.
“Just $50 a month is equal to $500 of food from Foodshare because of the hours of volunteer work that people donate,” Diana explained. “The whole community is rallying to help others. We’re seeing more donors than ever before, but the donations are getting smaller. Yet it’s important to know that even small amounts go a long way, and most of us can donate small amounts.”
With Christmas not too far down the road, she says companies could opt to send clients and customers a note saying they’ve donated to a charity instead of sending holiday gifts this year.
Beth of MACC is urging more people to donate their time or set aside a small amount by cutting back on little luxuries like eating out.
For a few years now, my husband and I have donated to our favorite charities on each other’s birthday and on our wedding anniversary — it’s one of the best gifts to give and receive.
About this column: Sujata Srinivasan, a freelance business journalist, writes this weekly column exploring area businesses, the economy and public policy responses that impact the lives of north central Connecticut residents. Her political affiliations are independent. You'll find her somewhere in the middle, scrutinizing with a magnifying glass the economics behind policymaking on either side of the aisle.