For The Dialog
A week before the end of January, Alex Handy was amazed by the amount of food assistance the Ss. Peter and Paul St. Vincent de Paul chapter provided.
“We’ve given out almost 900 bags of groceries this month,” said Handy, who is on the executive team of the Easton, Md., society. “We’ve never given out that many bags in one month. This past year we gave out about 800 bags a month.”
Part of the increase can be attributed to the extreme cold temperatures of this winter, but Handy and others believe the increase had begun well before the Arctic Vortex bedeviled the United States. They view the cause as a variety of factors, such as a lack of jobs (especially in manufacturing) on the Eastern Shore and cutbacks in government assistance programs.
The poor will be on the minds of participants in the 30th annual Lobby Night sponsored by the Maryland Catholic Conference on Presidents Day, Feb. 17. The gathering informs Catholics about a variety of legislative issues of concern to the church and allows Catholics an opportunity to lobby their elected officials in the General Assembly in Annapolis.
MCC priorities for 2014
The MCC’s legislative priorities include:
• Keeping state funding for safety net programs, especially those that are most essential;
• Improving low-income energy assistance programs; and
• Increasing the minimum wage.
Those initiatives could have a strong impact on the Eastern Shore, home to five of Maryland’s 10 poorest counties as they address factors raised by outreach officials pondering the increase in requests for assistance.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Mary Star of the Sea in Cambridge and St. Martin’s in Ridgely reported spikes in requests for assistance that began in November. That coincides with the impact set from the Oct. 1 federal sequestration, when the lack of a budget bill caused some federal government agencies and programs to shut down and a subsequent cutback in programs.
St. Martin’s experienced an almost 33 percent increase in people seeking help in November and December.
“We had almost 400 people (in each of those months) ask for food and utility assistance,” said Benedictine Sister Patricia Gamgort. “Normally we are in the 300 range.
“Each year we seem to be getting more and more people.”
Most are the working poor, she said, “people who have jobs but they’re not earning enough.”
The minimum wage in Maryland is $7.25 an hour. Legislation before the General Assembly, as Maryland calls its legislature, would raise that to $8.25 an hour 60 days after enactment, rising to $9.00 an hour on July 1 and $10 an hour in 2015. The minimum wage would be “indexed” so it would keep pace with the cost of living starting in 2016. (In Delaware, a bill before the Legislature would increase the state’s minimum wage to $8.25 an hour.)
Poor in the cold
The extreme cold illustrates “the real cycle of poverty,” Sister Patricia said. Everyone, including the poor, will pay more for heating and may also have to fix heating systems that are not used to the lower temperatures. Those increased costs reduce the already minimal amount one has for other living expenses, such as food, housing, health care and medication, and transportation.
St. Mary Refuge of Sinners’ St. Vincent de Paul has had “an explosion” in requests for help since October, said George Wright, vice president. One recent Wednesday, when he answers phones, 18 people called; he’s had as many as 22. In September and October he averaged 10 to 12 calls a day. Others who answer calls from Monday through Friday have had similar increases, he said.
“We’re overwhelmed with people asking for help,” Wright said. “I guess it’s due mainly to the economy. People have run out of the ability to pay for all they need.”
Each request requires a visit from society members to assess the need and whether the society can help. “If we’ve helped someone in the past month, we can’t help them again” because of the society’s own resource limitations, Wright said.
The society receives some money from the parish and also from the St. Vincent de Paul chapter in Easton, as well as its members. The maximum allowed to help a family with children is $50. “That’s nothing,” he said.
But the society can help in other ways. It operates a food pantry open from 10 to noon every Thursday in St. Mary’s hall. While people receive groceries, society members try to find out more about their situation and refer them to other organizations and agencies that may be able to help.
In Easton, Handy said a lack of jobs is the biggest issue.
“I think it’s getting harder and harder to find jobs,” he said. “The Shore’s not a bonanza for job opportunities,” especially manufacturing jobs.
A former large employer, a Black and Decker plant that had employed as many as 750 full-time and 550 part-time jobs, closed in 2004 as the company moved to areas with lower salary expectations. Nothing replaced it, Handy said.
The number of calls the Easton society receives has remained about the same – 12 per day – over the last several years, but the amount of money given out has increased, he said.
The society has its own pantry and thrift store in a building it owns at 29533 Canvasback Drive in Easton. Any money raised by the thrift store goes to the pantry operations, Handy said.
One factor that has increased is the number of Hispanics living in the area. Many seem to work seasonal, summer type jobs such as landscaping, Handy said, since more Hispanics seek help in the winter.
Most government assistance programs now require a Social Security number before one can receive help. That leads some Hispanics to seek aid elsewhere; many turn to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
The Social Security measure is just one of a number of cutbacks in government programs that have led people to other agencies.
• • •
Maryland Lobby Night 2014
• Begins Feb. 17, 3 p.m. at St. John Neumann Church, 620 N. Bestgate Road, Annapolis
• Briefing on issues
• Lobbying with elected officials
• Registration: mdcathcon.org/Lobby Night
• More information:
Chris Santo or Mariann Hughes,