The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

October 14, 2012

Working people still seek help


DANVILLE — Judy Johnson has worked in, volunteered at and donated to food pantries in the past. That’s why she wasn’t embarrassed when she found herself actually having to use one.

“It didn’t bother me to use the food pantry because I knew the spirit in which the donations were given,” said Johnson, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy. Johnson, 49, added it didn’t bother her because she had faith that her situation would be temporary.

Chuck Brooks, director of the Danville Area Food Pantry, said he is seeing more first-timers coming into his food pantry.

“People always say, ‘Well, who are these people? Is it someone getting public assistance?’” Brooks said.

“It’s everybody,” Brooks said. He also said a lot of pantry-users are working.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 2010, almost 1 in 10 American families included at least one person who was working, yet their family was still considered poor. That translates into more than 20 million people who live in “working poor” families.

Johnson is a testament to that. Even after she landed a part-time job, she still had to use the food pantries until her husband found work.

In fact, for a family of two adults, the wage it takes for one person to support his or her family in Vermilion County is estimated at $12.69 per hour, according to an online website, the Living Wage Calculator.

“A good percentage of the people (who use the food pantry) are working part-time, or full-time at less than a living wage,” Brooks said. “Minimum wage is not a living wage. You can’t feed a family of four making minimum wage.”

In Illinois, the minimum wage is $8.25 per hour. However, the wage it takes for one adult to support three children in Vermilion County is more than triple that. For that particular family of four, the living wage is estimated at $27.58 per hour, according to the Living Wage Calculator.

The site states the living wage is the hourly rate that an individual must earn to support his or her family if he or she is the sole provider and is working full-time, or 2,080 hours per year.

The site was implemented by a faculty member and student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Notes on the site indicate its last update was June 2012.

Brooks also said more seniors are using the food pantry, too, because their kids and grandkids are moving back in with them.

Johnson said her son had to move back in with them for a time. Her son lost his job even before her husband lost his.

Without the local resources, making it through tough times would have been hard for her family.

“The food pantries were a godsend,” Johnson said. “We were receiving unemployment, but that was our only income, and it didn’t last through the end of the month.”

Johnson said she used to consider herself middle class. That was before her husband was laid off without warning in 2010. He had been the sole income provider. Finding out where to go next wasn’t easy.

“I didn’t know what services were available to those who were laid off,” Johnson said. “It’s not that easy a task to do unless you’re in the system.” Johnson said the unemployment office didn’t provide a list of area food pantries, and she had to go to The Salvation Army to get one.

Johnson also said many times she found out about different community services by talking to others in the food pantry line.

Carol Olson, director of the St. James pantry, said the St. James Food Pantry actually makes a direct effort to connect pantry-goers with community resources. The pantry allows agencies such as the East Central Illinois Community Action Agency access to the pantry crowd.

“We realized that food is just one need out of a bundle of needs the families bring with them,” said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Randall Robinson. He added they will even pray with families if they request it.

Johnson said in the past she has used the St. James Food Pantry, the Danville Area Food Pantry and the pantries at a couple churches.

“I liked St. James the best,” Johnson said. “Based on your family size, they allow you to pick (the food you want).” She said having a choice between certain vegetables and cereals was helpful because she and her husband have certain dietary restrictions.

Johnson had to stop going to the St. James pantry, though, due to a time conflict; she started working Wednesdays at the library.

Catering to the crowd

Some food pantries are trying to broaden their reach. The Salvation Army recently implemented its evening food giveaway on Thursday. And the St. James Food Pantry already distributes its food in the evening — from 5-7 p.m. every third Wednesday of the month.

“We do that so working families can come,” Olson said.

Sharon Sawka, who heads The Salvation Army’s food pantry, said she doesn’t know whether those who use their pantry are working. However, she has noticed that those who seek other services at The Salvation Army do have jobs.

“A lot of people work,” Sawka said. “It’s just basically that they’re underpaid.”

Pantry part-timer Johnson did notice that some people who stood in line with her did not just work; some had full-time jobs.

She said many of those people worked in the service industry, for example, at places like Burger King or Wal-Mart.

“A huge percentage of them are people that have jobs, and maybe they’re getting food stamps or something that just doesn’t go far enough.”

Johnson added that even when a person gets a job, the paycheck doesn’t come right away. And a person might have to use the money for work-related expenses, like a new wardrobe. And then there are those overdue expenses, such as a car tune-up or missed bills.

“People in those situations don’t have the right financial tools to handle the situation,” she said. She said she thinks those who are laid off should be required to get financial counseling, a service she had to ask about.

“With the help of unemployment, food pantries and financial counseling at the unemployment office … we were able to keep our house, basically,” Johnson said.

On the other hand, she said when hard times hit she was more prepared than probably 95 percent of others. She and her husband had eight months of income saved up.

“It’s worth the sacrifice all along to put something away for the unexpected things like that because we didn’t have any warning at all,” Johnson said.

Though living beneath her means helped her, she said her family is still reeling. Though she and her husband both are working now, she doesn’t know whether to call herself lower middle class or upper lower class.

“It was a tough time,” she said. “We’re still recovering from it.”