Beliefnet
The problems of the poor have not been much on the public mind in the past year. In December 2000, Americans were still celebrating the longest peacetime economic expansion in memory--a boom that, while predominantly benefiting the middle and upper classes, provided more financial security for low income Americans. A few months later the economy began to weaken but our national attention, of course, became occupied by a far more immediate tragedy.

Perhaps lost along the way is the fact that three different trends have converged this month to potentially whack the poor. A faltering economy, the end of welfare benefits for many people, and a charitable sector rocked by 9/11--any one of these factors in isolation could cause serious problems. And they're happening at the same time.

The U.S. economy has been in a recession since March, 2001. In November, U.S. unemployment rose to 5.7 percent, the highest rate in six years. Average unemployment for all of 2000 was 4.0 percent.

Last week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released a report stating that requests for emergency food and shelter assistance had risen dramatically in many American cities during the past year.

A survey of 27 major American cities found need for food assistance rose an average of 23 percent. And since housing prices continue to rise despite the weakening economy, the need for emergency shelter services rose an average of 13 percent during the past year.

"A lot of people are really hurting," said Rev. David Beckmann, president of the anti-hunger organization Bread for the World. Beckmann said he has seen "an upsurge in demand for emergency help from churches."

For a particular group of the poor, things are about to get even worse.

The 1996 welfare reform decreed that no one could receive welfare benefits for more than five years--and for many, that five years is up at the end of this month. It is not known how many people nationwide will hit the five year limit this month, since each state has its own schedule.

For many people who hit the limit, states have a safety net in place to smooth the transition from federal to state welfare rolls. But for some that transition will not be so easy. The New York Times reported this week that more than 3,000 families in New York City have had their aid cut and are not able to transfer immediately into the temporary Safety Net program due to failure to submit applications on time, turning down job offers, or mistakes made by the city's human services departments.

Social service charities often help pick up the slack where the government leaves off, especially when more people are out of work. However, the charity sector itself is hurting. An Independent Sector survey found that 50% of Americans said they will give less to charity, as a result of the economic slowdown.

The 9/11 tragedy only exacerbates the problem. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported in November that since September 11, giving to many other charities had slumped, affecting such organizations as a Salvation Army-funded food bank in Des Moines and Habitat for Humanity. The Independent Sector survey found while most Americans will continue their normal pattern of giving after September 11, 26% of people who gave to September 11-related funds will reduce the amount of their other giving.

"[September 11] is putting off all the attention from people we barely paid attention to anyway," said Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett, director of Keren Mach'ar, the Fund for Tomorrow, an anti-poverty service and study organization for Jewish teenagers.

In a study after September 11 of how times of crisis and recessions affect charitable giving, the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University found that giving to human services organizations increased in the face of either recession or a crisis. But when the country experienced both a recession and a crisis, giving slumped.

Some insist the situation for charities is not that dire. "At this particular stage, it's not that dramatic," says Robert Berning, president of the Capital Area United Way in East Lansing, Michigan. "I don't think the wolf is at the door at this point," he said.

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