Poverty Rise Hits Local Food Banks

More than one-fifth of Gila County residents live in poverty as Arizona drops to 49th among the states

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Local charities continue to stagger under the impact of rising poverty rates, with a rising tide of desperate people seeking help to feed their families and scrape through the month.

“Just about everyone is out of money and out of food,” said Su Hubenthal, with the Payson St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank.

Local food banks eked through last winter as a result of a community food drive that raised an extra $50,000 and an additional 25,000 pounds of food.

However, a rise in poverty and the number of families losing their health insurance has compounded last year’s problems, with unemployment still hovering at around 10 percent.

Last year, demand jumped by about 50 percent and it hasn’t declined since, said Hubenthal.

“It just hasn’t gone down,” said Hubenthal.

“And now we’re going to start getting the utility bills. They’re starting to run out of their unemployment and whatever they’re living on and they’re really getting desperate. We have very few shelters up here, to help these people that are homeless.”

In many cases, all the local groups can do is to provide gas money to help folks reach the Valley where they can perhaps find a slot in a homeless shelter or move in with family and friends.

The U.S. Census Bureau in a recent report found that the Arizona poverty rate rose from 14 percent of the population in 2006-07 to 20 percent in 2008-09. That increase left Arizona with the second highest poverty rate in the country — just barely behind Mississippi.

Gila County’s poverty rate stands at nearly 22 percent. That means more than one in five Gila County residents have incomes below $22,000 for a family of four or about $11,000 for a single person.

The report shows that the number of people without medical insurance has also risen sharply as a result of the recession, especially in Gila County, where about one in three residents get their health care through the Medicaid-based AHCCCS system.

Arizona had managed to reduce the number of uninsured children through Kids Care, which offered low-cost insurance premiums for uninsured children in families with0with up to 150 percent of a poverty level income. However, the state legislature recently froze enrollment in Kids Care, which has resulted in a freeze on applications from about 70,000 families.

Even before the legislature cut off any new additions to that program, the Census Bureau figures showed the number of Arizona children without insurance rising from 14 percent to 15 percent.

In part, that reflects a steady decline in the children covered by insurance through their parents’ jobs — from 59 percent in 2000 to 47 percent in 2009.

The sharp rise in poverty and state cutbacks have combined to nearly overwhelm local charity organizations and food banks.

Hubenthal said Payson Helping Payson, funded by a coalition of local churches and the Salvation Army, has nearly run out of money. That compounds the drying up of various state and federal efforts, including the Community Action Program, which routinely runs out of money to help people stave off eviction or pay their electricity bills.

Hubenthal said generous donors have repeatedly showed up to help just as it seemed the shelves would empty.

“We’re just thankful that we live in a community that cares. They are just wonderful, whenever they hear or see that there’s a need, they respond immediately.”

She said she’s seen a big increase in the number of unemployed people and their children who have moved in with their retired parents in Payson.

She said many younger families have given up and moved away, hoping to find a job in the Valley or elsewhere.

Hubenthal said the need continues to run ahead of even last year’s dismaying records. This year, St. Vincent de Paul, with help from Payson Helping Payson, the Salvation Army and several local churches, has provided food boxes worth $594,000. About one-third of that came from federal programs and the rest from local donors.

St. Vincent also made home visits to assess the need of families for help, which resulted in payments of more than $127,000 for things like help on the rent, power and medical bills, which also included money donated by its community partners.

Nationally, both poverty and the number of people without medical insurance has risen inexorably as a result of an unemployment rate stuck at 10 percent for nearly two years. Some 44 million Americans were living below the poverty line and a record 51 million had no health insurance. The poverty rate would have been about 4 million higher, except for the number of people who cut costs by doubling up on housing.

Among the findings in the recent Census Bureau report:

• About one third of the U.S. population has spells of poverty lasting two months or more.

• Only about 2.2 percent of the population suffers chronic poverty, which means their income remained below the threshold continuously for 48 months.

• Poverty levels remained strongly linked to a lack of education.

• Real median income dropped by 2 percent last year, with similar declines projected this year.

• Median household income dropped sharply for most groups as the recession set in, dropping to $65,469 for Asians, $54,461 for whites, $38,038 for Hispanics and $32,584 for blacks.

• The number of Americans living in poverty rose to 43.6 million, higher than at any time since the Great Depression.

• Some 17 percent of Americans had no health insurance. That works out to 51 million people.

The census numbers suggest that all those figures hit even harder in Gila County, with a poverty rate well above the national average.

The county has a population of about 54,000. That includes the north county area with a large retirement population and a much lower unemployment rate than the southern portions of the county, with the struggling mining communities around Globe and Superior and the San Carlos Apache Reservation with an unemployment rate of nearly 50 percent.

Gila County U.S.

In Labor Force 46 % 65%

Over 65 years old 22% 13%

White 82% 86%

Native American 15% 56%

Own a home 79 % 68%

Median home value $100,000 $121,000

Per capita income $38,000 $51,000

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