The increase in Seneca County families seeking food assistance this year is unprecedented, and it comes at the worst possible time: a time when government funding cuts and the typical downturn in donations during the summer months also hit.
A vast majority of the clientele coming to the Seneca County House of Concern are working at least one part-time job. Many of the others are disabled or elderly. The media image of a “moocher” taking advantage of an overly generous government dole is way off the mark. You are much more likely to see Veterans and people who have been laid off or disabled who are genuinely afraid they won’t be able to feed their kids. Many are forced to make the decision between food and heat. One of the most common needs is for enough gas to get to their jobs.
MINIMUM WAGE vs LIVING WAGE
Although there are legitimate concerns about the impact of raising the minimum wage, the clients at the House of Concern illustrate the other side of that coin. People in Seneca County can work a full time or two part-time part time jobs and still not make enough to feed their families.
According to an MIT study, the living wage in Seneca County NY for a family with two adults and two children would be $18.20/hour. The study notes that anything less than $10.80/hour would be considered a “poverty wage,” meaning barely sufficient to meet the basic needs of the family. In other words, the so-called “minimum wage” is more than $3/hour less than the “poverty wage.” In terms of real dollars, the minimum wage has dropped more than $2/hour since the last time it was raised. The minimum wage in New York will rise to $9/hr over a three year period starting with a 75 cents per hour increase Dec.31 of this year.
At the same time, the majority of jobs available in the county pay below the “living wage” level wages, and some, such as food preparation and serving pay below the poverty level. Here are the typical wages paid in this county for various types of work, according to the study. Note that these are median wages, not the lowest or highest wages in each category.
SENECA COUNTY NY PAY SCALES
|Food Preparation and Serving Related||$9.61|
|Building and Grounds Cleaning and maintenance||$13.32|
|Personal care and Services||$10.99|
|Sales and Related||$13.38|
|Office and Administrative Support||$16.37|
|Farming, Fishing and Forestry||$13.36|
|Transportation and Material Moving||$15.53|
For the complete study, click HERE.
It should be noted that some of the people earning minimum wage are teens living at home or trainees on their way to higher paying jobs. But, increasingly, older workers supporting families have had to accept minimum wage employment. It is reported that the average worker at McDonalds nationwide is 28, not the stereotypical teenager working after school for date money.
HOW DOES THAT WORK RIGHT HERE IN SENECA COUNTY?
That trend can be clearly seen during the intake process at the House of Concern. Although the individual records are confidential, looked at as a whole, they indicate that a large number of the clients are working, but that having a job doesn’t mean the job pays above a poverty wage, or anywhere close to a “living wage.” They also indicate that the numbers of people in the county working in these types of positions have increased dramatically. The downside of increased tourism is the fact that many of the new jobs created by increased tourism are in fields that pay low wages. At the same time, a decrease in the county’s industrial base also means fewer “living wage” job opportunities.
It is not difficult to see the reasons for the increase in demand for food at the county’s five food pantries. A solution is much harder to come by. A vast majority of the employers in Seneca County have employees who use the services of area food pantries. It has become a fact of life, if a disturbing one.
Economists argue both sides of the issue. Raising wages will, most agree, decrease the number of jobs. But it will also increase (again, most agree) the amount of money spent, the amount of sales tax collected and so on. The consensus of most economic studies appears to be that raising the wage has a net zero effect on employment. That is, the number of jobs lost are replaced by the number created by the increased economic activity generated by more money flowing into the local economy. Of course the net effect of empowering people to be self-sufficient and not need to look for charitable support is more difficult to measure.
In any case, pay scale is not the only issue. Recent cuts in Federal funding to programs like Foodlink, which supplies much of the food distributed by the House of Concern and other food pantries, have cut the amount of food available. At the same time, cuts in funds for other social services, such as subsidies for housing, fuel, day care etc., has placed an even greater financial burden on poor families, many of which have been forced to accept SNAP and come to the area food pantries for the first time in their lives.
THE SUMMER SLUMP
Right now, in Seneca County and throughout the region, food pantries are also experiencing the rather typical cycle of decreased donations. The summer months are traditionally slow times for donations, but the demand for food goes up during the summer because many of the school-age children who receive subsidies for lunches at school are now home for the summer, adding a further strain on the family finances.
For now, the only real solution for local food pantries like the House of Concern is to raise the funds coming in, and do what they can to lower the funds going out. The HOC has done this by increasing their fund-raising activities, like this Spring’s Little Black Dress Fashion show, opening a new consignment shop in downtown Seneca Falls to reach new buyers, and doing things like lowering the ceilings in the New Beginnings Thrift Store on State Street and obtaining new grants for special projects.
The Board has also named a “Volunteer Volunteer Coordinator” to help run the various operations of the thrift store and food pantry. The organization has also helped educate potential recipients on how to apply for SNAP and other programs and has leveraged new support from existing Foodlink programs to increase the amount of food available.
One of the ironies is that although all House of Concern employees make more than minimum wage, most make less than the MIT study’s “poverty wage.”
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
The easiest and most painless way to help with the current crunch is to buy items from either of the New Beginnings stores – New Beginnings Thrift store at 35 State Street or the New Beginnings Boutique at 91A Fall Street. The thrift store has a vast quantity of men’s, women’s and children’s clothing as well as household furnishings and accessories, books, CDs and DVDs and more. The Boutique features previously enjoyed women’s fashions and accessories including many designer label clothes. Items may also be brought in for sale on consignment.
Donations of goods and services and volunteering can also help. Please make sure the items you donate are genuinely something you would buy yourself. If you look at the item wonder if it should go to the House of Concern or simply be thrown away, chances are it should be thrown away. Please don’t bring broken appliances. When you bring your items, please bring them during regular store hours. If you have an item that needs to be picked up, it may take a few days to arrange for pick-up since the HOC relies on volunteer labor and trucks for most of the pick-ups.
If you are able to, summer is a great time to make a donation because it’s a big help to have a bit of extra income during traditionally lean times. If you can make it an EXTRA donation, even better.