Relief agencies suggest hardship

by Miriah Hamrick
Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The unemployment rate in New Hanover County has dropped significantly since January 2013, resting at 6.3 percent, yet local food assistance programs still claim an increased demand for services. 

The latest unadjusted numbers from the N.C. Department of Commerce peg the Wilmington metro area’s unemployment rate at 6.1 percent for December 2013 compared to New Hanover County’s 6.3 percent. 

At a time when the nation is closely monitoring the unemployment rate for signs of economic recovery, the numbers can be interpreted as good news.

Despite a dwindling unemployment rate, entities across the county that provide food for individuals and households in need report a sustained surge in services, suggesting financial hardship is still a concern for many local residents.

“We have seen a slight increase in food and nutrition services,” said Christine McNamee, assistant director of social services at the New Hanover County Division of Social Services. 

In January 2014, 1,399 new applications for food and nutrition services —namely, SNAP benefits — were processed, which is up from the 988 new applications processed in July 2013. Open cases continued to hover around 16,100.

McNamee said they saw big increases from the recession in 2008.

 “We’ve maintained those numbers,” she said. 

Christy Simmons, manager of public relations at the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, which provides perishable and non-perishable food to soup kitchens and need agencies in the region, said local partners reported an increase in individuals and households receiving assistance.

Some of their partners include Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, Good Shepherd Center and Salvation Army. 

Major Richard Watts, commanding officer for the Salvation Army in Wilmington, confirms Simmons’ suggestion of increased need. Watts said the numbers at the Salvation Army’s soup line have jumped more than 100 percent in the last year, with 6,313 individuals served so far in the first quarter of 2014 compared to 2,966 during the first quarter of 2013.

“That’s a pretty steep jump,” Watts said. 

With options like baked ziti now available in the soup line, Watts said a new chef could be behind the swell in numbers, saying that even he considered having dinner at work some nights.

Jokes aside, Watts is hesitant to try to pinpoint the cause of such a jump. 

“You can’t say one factor is responsible, but it is a reflection that there is a tremendous need out there,” he said. 

Watts suspects underemployment could be a bigger cause for the boost in business than unemployment, claiming that most of the recipients at Salvation Army are either unemployable or stuck in part-time work. 

“That seems to be the direction many companies are going,” he said.

McNamee supports that thesis. 

“Most of our recipients are employed, just underemployed,” she said.

Others concerned about interpreting unemployment numbers as a sign of improvement might not be surprised. Unemployment statistics include everyone available to take a job who has actively sought work in the past four weeks. A dip in unemployment estimates could indicate fewer people actively searching for work instead of actual employment gains. 

An alternate estimate of labor underutilization in North Carolina calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics includes all unemployed workers who have looked for work in the past 12 months and part-time workers who are available and want to work more, the underemployment rate for the state is 14.7 percent for 2013.

Either way, Watts is reluctant to accept economic reports as an indication of real need. 

“I don’t want to say I don’t see it getting any better,” he said. “There seems to be an improvement. But when you’re hungry, it doesn’t matter what the GDP is.”

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