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What recovery? Despite employment numbers, many in poverty


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Mel Sipes of Greenwood loads his car outside the Interchurch Food Pantry Tuesday. Sipes and his wife are raising their 10-year-old grandson and have less income than the federal poverty line of about $20,000 for a family of three. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
Mel Sipes of Greenwood loads his car outside the Interchurch Food Pantry Tuesday. Sipes and his wife are raising their 10-year-old grandson and have less income than the federal poverty line of about $20,000 for a family of three. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

Mel Sipes of Greenwood picks out extra canned goods at the Interchurch Food Pantry on Tuesday. About 14,000 Johnson County residents are living in poverty, and local food pantries and charitable organizations are continuing to see steady or increasing use over the past year. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
Mel Sipes of Greenwood picks out extra canned goods at the Interchurch Food Pantry on Tuesday. About 14,000 Johnson County residents are living in poverty, and local food pantries and charitable organizations are continuing to see steady or increasing use over the past year. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal


A Franklin woman pulled into the station and bought one gallon of gas — just enough to get around town — becauase it was all she could afford.

When Cora Gibbs lost her full-time job at a veterinary clinic in May, her family went from doing OK month-to-month to barely scraping by. Gibbs, her daughter and granddaughter live together, and in the past five months they have rapidly plunged into poverty.

She counted pocket change to see if they had enough for a gallon of milk. Their bank account was so overdrawn that her daughter’s paychecks would just barely take the balance out of the negative. They struggled to figure out how to come up with an extra $35 so they didn’t have to tell her 6-year-old granddaughter that she couldn’t play soccer this year.

The number of Johnson County residents living in poverty increased last year, while rates across the state and nation stayed steady, according to U.S. Census statistics. About 14,000 residents are living below the federal poverty thresholds, which are $11,490 for a single person or $23,550 for a family of four. That’s up from about 12,500 people living in poverty in 2011, according to the estimates.

Job losses, divorces or underemployment can put people in a situation where they can’t pay their monthly bills or feed and clothe themselves without assistance, local charitable groups said. The number of families under the poverty line decreased to 6.4 percent, but families tend to move in together during hard financial times.

The number of people seeking aid at local food pantries and charitable organizations isn’t decreasing, officials said. The number of families visiting a Greenwood agency has doubled since 2012 to more than 4,500 families, and a Trafalgar aid group recently has seen about 20 more families each week.

Gibbs was waiting last week at the Interchurch Food Pantry in Franklin to get a bag of groceries for her and her family. She hopes it will be the last trip she needs to make to the pantry, because she recently was hired as a part-time driver. She is still looking for a second job to get back to 40 hours of work per week. But it will take some time to pay off the utility bills that have built up and take her bank account out of the red.

“We had enough to pay the bills and enough to play a little. There was always a little extra,” she said. “But then we got so far behind on bills.”

Still struggling

Who: Cora Gibbs, Franklin

Income: Nothing since losing her job in May. Recently has started working part time, daughter works as a high school teacher.

At home: Lives with her daughter and granddaughter. Her daughter’s income as a high school teacher hasn’t been enough to pay all the bills since May. Gibbs has been getting food from the food pantry to help during the time but has been making minimum payments on utilities and overdrawing her bank account.

Who: Mel Sipes, Greenwood

Income: About $725 from Social Security. Wife makes about $500 from a part-time job.

Estimated expenses: $1,000 per month

At home: They are raising their 10-year-old grandson after his mother was killed. Family gets food from the Interchurch Food Pantry once per month.

Who: Novalee Conrad, Franklin

Income: $700 per month

Estimated expenses: $1,000 per month

At home: Lives with a roommate, who recently took a lesser-paying job. Visits three food pantries each month. Hasn’t worked since 2008 but is having hand surgery and hopes to be back to cutting hair by next year.

Gibbs and her daughter would scrape together enough to send a minimum payment to the electric company just to keep the lights on. The balance is now more than $500 and will take several more months to pay down, she said.

Mel Sipes of Greenwood also was at the pantry for his monthly visit. He and his wife struggle to support themselves and their 10-year-old grandson, whose mother was killed in a car accident six years ago. Sipes, 76, gets about $725 per month from Social Security and his wife brings home about $500 per month after taxes from her part-time job at Kmart.

Once a house painter, Sipes said he is too old to look for work now. The food he picks up from the pantry usually lasts all month, and his wife can work magic with a bag of potatoes so they eat well, he said. Sipes doesn’t expect his financial situation will improve, but with a little help, they make it, he said.

“It just takes a lot to live these days,” Sipes said.

In 2012, about 8,900 individuals and families used the pantry in Franklin, and the demand is on pace to be about the same this year, pantry co-manager Carol Phipps said. Many families and individuals come in every month like Sipes, but new people are continuing to need the pantry, too. The pantry hit a high in 2011 when more than 35,000 people got food.

“What we seem to find is that some families roll off and don’t need to come back. But we had about a dozen new families that came in that we’ve never served before,” Phipps said.

Other organizations continue helping a growing number of struggling residents. More than twice the number of people are visiting The Refuge in Greenwood for food, clothing or other services this year compared with 2012. And more families are starting to seek aid at the Lord’s Locker in Trafalgar in recent weeks because of job losses, underemployment and divorces.

From January to September 2012, 2,059 families went to The Refuge. That number has grown to 4,632 during the same period this year, community impact coordinator Kerry Jones said.

Domestic issues, such as divorce, can suddenly put a single mother who wasn’t working out on her own, Lord’s Locker director Emmalea Butler said. Recently her organization helped a single mother with three children and a single father with three children, she said. Their numbers have grown from about 50 families helped each week to nearly 70 per week during September.

People are losing jobs or having their hours cut and are forced to try to string together two or three part-time jobs to make enough to live. They struggle to pay their bills and seek assistance, Phipps said. Despite reports of the economy improving, workers at The Refuge are meeting more people who can’t find the right work, Jones said.

“A lot of people look at the statistics, that unemployment is better and everything should be much better, but it’s not, and people are struggling. We’re finding more and more families are combining and a brother moves in with the sister or a daughter moves in with her parents,” Jones said.

Novelee Conrad had cut hair in Franklin for more than 25 years but hasn’t been able to since 2008 because of chronic pain she has in her hands after years of clipping bangs and trimming hair with scissors. The 65-year-old had surgery on her thumbs, which didn’t help, and she now is waiting to see if she can have a second hand surgery by the end of the year.

She lives with a roommate in Franklin, who recently had to take a lesser-paying job, and their combined income is just enough to cover monthly expenses for the apartment. Conrad picks up food from three different pantries each month to help reduce the amount they spend on groceries and still sometimes barely has enough at the end of the month to cover her Medicare co-pays for doctor’s visits.

If the surgeons can fix her hands, she’d like to start working again starting next year, she said.

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