Despite Unemployment Drop, Finding Work Still Challenge
By Pam G. Dempsey
With the local unemployment rate peaking in 2010 before a steady decline, finding a job now may be a more promising experience than it was two years ago.
Yet, the rising costs of basics, such as food, shelter and medicine have left many families still struggling to make ends meet, and just having a job may not be enough.
When Tiawana Lee’s family suddenly grew by three, life became tougher financially. The 37-year-old nursing assistant began fostering her three nephews in 2004 – pushing the family’s size from two to five.
“I remember like at one point, I was living from paycheck to paycheck,” she said.
Lee and her husband live in a two-bedroom apartment in Dobbins Downs, a mixed income area in north Champaign.
Lee was making between $36,000 and $40,000 a year while working nights at the Champaign County Nursing Home. Despite her good-paying job and the supplemental income from the state for the children’s needs, meeting expenses was still a struggle. She said it would have been better if she had qualified for federal supplemental food assistance, or what is more commonly known as a LINK card.
“At one point in time, I had struggled a lot, like with food because I wasn’t getting a LINK card, so I was buying everything with cash, so I would resort to like the little food pantries and stuff like that they had, which helped some,” she said.
To qualify for the benefit in Illinois, a family of five can make no more than $2,900 a month on average, according to 2012 guidelines.
Lee was making just above that amount, but the cutoff for that benefit may not reflect rising costs.
In September, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a 2-percent increase in the cost of food over the past year, with larger increases in housing and medical care. The increases in the cost of basic expenses have pushed more people to seek help from food pantries.
Nathan Montgomery, executive director of Salt and Light, said now about 30-percent of the food pantry’s clients are new families.
“We see a lot of people who have never been to a place like Salt and Light before who now find themselves in line for good and clothing and things like that,” Montgomery said. “It really has to do with how the economy turned and the jobs losses we saw and where we saw them, really kind of, I think thrust people in positions they had never experienced before.”
Lee was still living paycheck to paycheck until a friend helped her work out a personal budget. Since then, Lee said, she has prioritized how she spends her money.
“I had to re-group, and do what’s important and what’s not important and don’t have to be here, like cable, since the kids are not here, I don’t see the necessity,” she said.
Lee’s nephews were reunited with their mother this past August and Lee’s family became a two-person household once again.
She now is considering returning to school to finish a bachelor’s degree in nursing. But the cost is expensive and Lee says she would have to give up work and take out loans to afford the degree. However, she does not see the benefit of doing that at this time.
“I mean do I really want to go through taking out a big $40,000, $50,000 loan?” she explained.
A job for her may not be guaranteed. The unemployment rate in the Champaign-Urbana area has fluctuated over the past year, with August showing a slightly lower unemployment rate than in July.
Montgomery said that for the clients Salt and Light serves, jobs are still needed.
”I don’t care what the economic indicators are or what the markets are saying,” he said. “The bottom line for most of the people we are serving is it’s all about jobs, are there jobs, are there places for them to get employment that is meaningful and is going to actually sustain them and frankly we haven’t seen that growth.”
For some though, a job is simply not attainable. For the 15-percent of households in Champaign County that make less than $10,000 a year, life has grown harder since the recession.
(This story was funded by the Marguerite Casey Foundation)