Second Harvest Survey Details Problems Faced by People Seeking Help at Emergency Food Assistance Sites
Since “The Great Recession” began in 2007, 76% of those seeking assistance at food pantries and meal centers commonly called “soup kitchens” sought help for the first time. The Second Harvest Food Bank of LehighValley and Northeast Pennsylvania released the results of a survey of 500 people who have sought assistance at a press briefing today. The briefing took place at the warehouse operated by Second Harvest located at 2045 Harvest Way in southwest Allentown.
The randomized survey, conducted from January to April, 2011, offers an in-depth view of those in our society who are “crowding the margins,” the phrase Second Harvest used as the title of the report. A sustained period of unemployment means unemployed workers will exhaust their savings, losing the cushion that might have sustained them during a normal period of joblessness. These workers are joining many others whose skills and circumstances have limited their opportunities long before the current economic malaise.
The survey also noted other evidence that a new class of people marginalized by the economy is seeking assistance: the percentage of people seeking assistance who own their home increased from 10% in the last survey conducted by Second Harvest in 2007, to 16%, a 60% increase. Additionally, the percentage owning a vehicle increased a third, to 46%.
As more people find themselves relegated to struggling to pay their bills from month to month, Second Harvest and its network of non-profits that obtain a portion of their food from the regional food bank, is becoming the key source of food for subsistence purposes, not just in emergencies: ten percent of those surveyed have been using the network for more than ten years; 78% report seeking assistance at least monthly; and 35% report that the non-profits are their primary source of food.
Interestingly, only 10% report having difficulty paying their rent or mortgage more than one or two times per year. Apparently, they have prioritized their housing expense, cobbling together the income and various forms of assistance to avoid losing their home. However, the report indicates that they are more likely to have trouble paying for heat, utilities and other common household expenses.
One in five respondents report having a job, but more than half of those work part-time; 78% of those working part-time report preferring a full-time job. Only 7% of the respondents report collecting Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (what some call “welfare”). However, 20% report collecting Social Security, 20% report collecting Supplemental Security Income and 30% collect Social Security Disability checks.
Because health problems can severely restrict the quality of life and impact workers’ employability, Second Harvest asked questions about access to health care. It found that 69% of those interviewed have some kind of health insurance. And, yet, because of the cost, 49% of those with health insurance reported that they did not fill a prescription, 37% skipped a medical test or treatment, 36% had a medical problem but did not see a doctor, and 44% did not see a specialist when needed within the last year. Also, despite having health insurance, 59% report having outstanding debts due to medical expenses. Of those, 69% reported that their debts exceeded $1,000.
Speakers at the press briefing included Barbara Bigelow, Chair of the Advisory Board of Second Harvest, Elisa Zaehringer, Planner, Community Action, Alan Jennings, Executive Director of Community Action, Terry Ryan-Mitlyng, Steering Committee Chair of Christ Church Lowhill Food Pantry, Daina Nanchanatt, Muhlenberg College Student.
Second Harvest Food Bank of LehighValleyand Northeast Pennsylvania is a program of the Community Action Committee of theLehighValleyand a member of Feeding America. Second Harvest Food Bank annually distributes over 5.5 million pounds of food and grocery products per year to nearly 180 member agencies in Northampton, Lehigh, Carbon, Monroe, Pike, and Wayne counties.
Surveys were conducted at Allentown Ecumenical Food Bank, Bethel Bible Fellowship, Bethlehem Salvation Army, Central Neighborhood Center, Christ Church Lowhill, Holy Bethel Pentecostal, Jewish Family Service, Lehigh County Conference of Churches Soup Kitchen, New Bethany Ministries Soup Kitchen, New Bethany Ministries Pantry, Northampton Area Food Bank, Northern Lehigh Food Bank, Portland Upper Mount Bethel Food Pantry (PUMP), ProJeCt of Easton, Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church, and Salem United Methodist Church.
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ATTACHED TO THIS RELEASE IS A COPY OF THE EXECUTIVE SUMMARY OF THE REPORT. A FULL REPORT WITH THE RAW DATA, GRAPHS AND THE SURVEY INSTRUMENT ARE AVAILABLE BY CONTACTING ELISA ZAEHRINGER AT 484-893-1046 OR EZAEHRINGER@Community Action.ORG.
CROWDING THE MARGINS: A REPORT ON THE RESULTS OF INTERVIEWS OF 500 PEOPLE SEEKING RELIEF FROM FOOD INSECURITY
The Lehigh Valley is the third most populous region in Pennsylvania and, prior to the recession, was benefiting from rapid economic and population growth that exceeded any other region in Pennsylvania and much of the Northeast. But the recession has hit the region hard, with unemployment exceeding the state average. Unemployment approached 10% in 2010 and remains stubbornly high. The housing market has been devastated by mortgage foreclosures and remains fragile at best. Property values have plummeted, draining most families’ equity. That equity is key to economic recovery, as small businesses typically borrow against it. This period of economic hardship led to an increasing demand for public and non-profit services; however, cuts in an array of such services limit our community’s ability to help. As each day passes, more families will join the parade of people unable to pay their bills, hiding from the bill collectors and turning to their neighbors for understanding and assistance.
The Second Harvest Food Bank of Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania, a program of the Community Action Lehigh Valley, conducts periodic surveys of those who use the network of non-profit organizations that provide food assistance to people in need. The information is used to enable all of us – those in policy-making positions, voters, philanthropists, and those of us who work hard to develop solutions to compelling problems in our community – to be part of the solution. The sample for this 2011 study was 500, the largest in our history of such surveys.
It was predictable that this recession would pull middle class households into the ranks of the poor, as persistent unemployment would drain savings and other personal safety nets, forcing people to seek assistance. More than three out of four respondents (76%) reported using a food pantry or soup kitchen for the first time over the past four years (Figure 10). Additional evidence can be found in the fact that 16% of respondents own their own home, up 60% since the last study was conducted in 2007 (Figure 1 and that 46% own an automobile, up about one-third over our last two surveys (Figure 7).
The answers to three of the survey’s questions are, collectively, especially disturbing: first, that 10% of respondents report seeking assistance for more than 10 years (Figure 10); second, that 35% of respondents report that the assistance they receive from food pantries and soup kitchens is often their primary source of food (Figure 9); and, finally, that 78% report using this assistance at least monthly (Figure 11 Essentially, they are using the emergency assistance network as a supplement to their incomes and the array of other services available to them. This raises questions about the number of people who have been cast aside, relegated to the margins of our society
Interestingly, despite their financial struggles, only 10% have trouble paying their rent or mortgage more than a couple times a year (Figure 3). They do, however, cite much greater difficulty paying other household expenses like heat (Figure 4) and electricity (Figure 5), which are one-third less likely to be included in their rent than was the case in our 2007 and 2004 reports (Figure 2). The good news here is that they have made a conscious decision to pay their most important bill first.
The study found that 60% of the respondents participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps); this is a 33% increase over results from the 2007 Hunger Study (Figure 13). This is a small victory for hunger-relief advocates, as it illustrates that the increase in outreach efforts over the past few years, coupled with improvements made in the program in 2008, have helped connect people in need to available services. Unfortunately, the program remains inadequate in mitigating food insecurity, as 73% of respondents reported that they exhaust their benefits before the end of the month (Figure 16). Furthermore, 20% of those who have been utilizing the emergency food assistance network for the past 3-4 years have also been enrolled in SNAP for the same amount of time (Figure 15).
One in five respondents report having a job, but more than half of those work part-time; 78% of those working part-time would prefer to work full-time (Figures 21, 22 and 23). Of those reporting that they were seeking employment (39%), 47% have been looking for a job for more than one year (Figures 24 and 25). Only 7% of the respondents report collecting Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (what some call “welfare”) (Figure 27). However, 20% report collecting Social Security, 20% report collecting the Supplemental Security Income and 30% collect Social Security Disability checks (Figure 27).
The survey indicates that 69% of those we interviewed have some kind of health insurance (Figure 17). And, yet, because of the cost, 49% of those with health insurance reported that they did not fill a prescription, 37% skipped a medical test or treatment, 36% had a medical problem but did not see a doctor, and 44% did not see a specialist when needed within the last year (Figure 18).
Also, despite having health insurance, 59% report having outstanding debts due to medical expenses (Figure 19). Of those, 69% reported that their debts exceeded $1,000 (Figure 20). It is clear that the health insurance options available to lower-income households have significant limitations.
Demographically, 58% of the respondents identified themselves as white, 24% reported being Latino and 13% reported being African-American (Figure 29); 72% reported having total household income of less than $24,000 per year (Figure 30) and 89% have a high school degree, the equivalent or even college educations (Figure 31). Only 9% of those interviewed are age 65 or over (Figure 32).
We find it difficult to resist wondering how it is that we have come to this: stubbornly high unemployment; underemployment; stagnant wages that aren’t keeping up with the rising cost of housing. How is it that health care costs, despite insurance, still decimate families’ resources? And how is it that nearly every publicly-funded assistance program is being targeted for funding cuts? These forces have resulted in people crowding the margins of our society.
And, so, we are left to thank those who make it possible for so many people to receive assistance in emergencies as well as the many people whose circumstances force them to seek subsistence through their neighbors’ benevolence.
We wish it wasn’t necessary.