Study: Meeting basic needs a struggle for many families


The U.S. economy overall has consistently improved over the last few years.

Despite that, about 40 percent of American families struggled to meet at least one of their basic needs last year, according to a study conducted by the Urban Institute.

“We see that all the time,” said Amanda Drew, manager of the Community Food Bank in Jasper. “The majority of our people work. But they are underemployed or working multiple part-time jobs and don’t receive benefits.”

The study, completed in August, found that adults with lower incomes or health issues had the biggest strain with meeting basic needs, which the study defined as paying for food, health care, housing or utilities.

The average unemployment rate in the United States for 2017 was 4.4 percent, a low that followed years of decline.

Local township trustees think the economic upturn is the reason they have had fewer requests for financial assistance in the last year. Each township has a township assistance fund, what used to be called poor relief, that is used to help township residents who are in financial straits.

”This year has been surprisingly low on requests,” said Ferdinand Township Trustee David Kemper. “It’s not nearly the strain as it was two or three years ago. I guess the job market is better here. I’m grateful for the upturn in things.”

In any given year, Kemper would get 12 to 15 requests. “This year so far, it’s been about six or seven,” he said.

The trustees said that most of the requests that come in are for assistance with rent and utilities.

“Last year was pretty well even with previous years, but this year it‘s down some. I’ve not had as many requests this year,” Bainbridge Township Trustee Ken Buck said. “But it is coming up to winter. So I’m not sure what will happen then.”

Having a job doesn’t ensure that families will be able to meet their basic needs, said Michael Karpman, one of the study’s authors. Among the households with at least one working adult, more than 30 percent reported hardship.

“Economic growth and low unemployment alone do not ensure everyone can meet their basic needs,” the authors wrote.

”Across the board, people are working,” Drew said of those who frequent the Community Food Bank. “But people are living paycheck to paycheck. And then something catastrophic happens, like a major illness or something happens to their home or vehicle, and they have no reserve, no backup, no savings to help offset that. Or we have a lot of elderly people coming in, who have to choose between paying for food or purchasing medicine. But they need both to survive.

“We hear those conversations happening all the time.”

Food insecurity was the most common challenge cited in the study: More than 23 percent of households struggled to feed their family at some point during the year. That was followed by problems paying a family medical bill, reported by about 18 percent. A similar percentage didn’t seek care for a medical need because of the cost.

Additionally, roughly 13 percent of families missed a utility bill payment at some point during the year. And 10 percent of families either didn’t pay the full amount of their rent or mortgage, or they paid it late.

In 2016, the food bank filled 10,843 orders. In 2017, it filled 11,006 orders. Drew said the food bank sees an average of 30 to 35 new families each month.

“So while we are seeing new people, there are some people who are falling off,” she said, “that have bettered their situation or circumstances have changed such that they don’t need to come here.”

But the food bank sees many working people who have to choose to not cover a basic need in order to cover others.

“We have many people who are the working poor and barely making it from paycheck to paycheck,” Drew said, “though, it’s probably not talked about enough here.”

The Urban Institute’s survey comes at a time when lawmakers are considering cuts to some safety-net programs, such as Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps) and housing assistance.

The researchers said that lawmakers run the risk of increasing the rate of hardship if they reduce support services.

It is the first study on the subject by the DC-based organization, which looks at economic and social policy issues. The institute plans to conduct the study every year to track the well-being of families as the economy and safety net systems evolve.

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