As Recession Wears On, More Middle Income Vermonters Seek Help

02/27/10 8:30AM By Lynne McCrea
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VPR/Lynne McCrea

(Host) As the recession in Vermont continues to wear on, some troubling statistics are emerging. In the last 2 years, demand for food stamps is up 66 percent. The number of people needing help with fuel and utility bills is also up sharply.

And now, a new trend. This morning in our Hitting Home series, VPR's Lynne McCrea has a story about middle income families who are turning to state services for the first time.

(Mitchell setting up laptop) "This is where I live - the kitchen table ..."

 (McCrea) For George Mitchell of Essex Junction, the kitchen table is more than a place to gather. These days, it's where he sets up his laptop and spends hours doing practice tests for a computer certification course.

(Mitchell) "It's not enough just to PASS - that will get you your license. But, the employers look for people who scored in the top 10 percent."

(McCrea) Mitchell, who is 58, started the course after he was laid off 8 months ago from his job in quality control at Blodgett Corporation. To make matters worse, Mitchell's pink slip came just after his wife started a training program to become a teacher, following a career in nursing.

(Mitchell) "She got burned out on it - did it 11 years, working in hospice. And so, she signed up for the "TAP" program - teacher apprentice program. And as soon as she got accepted into that and left her job as a nurse, I got laid off from Blodgett."

(McCrea) Suddenly, the family's yearly income dropped from more than $80,000, to less than $25,000. George Mitchell says unemployment checks helped and he tapped into savings to cover costs for him, his wife and teenage daughter. But eventually, money ran out.

(Mitchell) "In 40 plus years of working, this is the first time we've been in this situation..."

(McCrea) So Mitchell turned to Chittenden Community Action in Burlington and met with Meribeth Seaman, who's a housing advocate.

(Seaman) "He was behind 2 months rent and in danger of losing his housing - becoming homeless."

(McCrea) Seaman was able to help George Mitchell thanks to new, federal money that's available for people who can show they have a temporary need... and that, going forward, they will be able to pay their bills.

(Seaman) So we go over their budget and some of the questions we have to ask are personal. How much do you spend on utilities... how much for cable... do you really NEED to spend that much on cable? So we go through all that and George had to make some hard choices."

(Mitchell) "We cut back on everything that's nonessential. We took our daughter's car off the road, and took her off our insurance. We cut back on cable, and phone use. And so I got my budget to where we can live on unemployment."

(McCrea) Meribeth Seaman says that being able to help Mitchell with back rent is a win-win situation.

(Seaman) "If he had lost his housing, it would have been harder for them to go back to work - it's always hard to find a job if you don't have a stable address, and it costs much more to keep people in the shelter. He might have had to pay to stay in a motel.  It's a very expensive option."

(McCrea) And George Mitchell isn't alone. Meribeth Seaman says the number of people coming through the doors of Chittenden Community Action has more than doubled from a year ago. And something else has changed.

(Seaman) "In the past we saw a lot of the same people who were very vulnerable that had no income or extremely low income. That's changed. Over the last six months, we're seeing more middle income people - people that have been able to pay their rent in the past, and aren't."

(McCrea) But while the demand for services is rising, economist Dick Heaps warns that cutbacks are on the horizon.

(Heaps) "The state of Vermont can't continue to supply services to the human services department at the rate it was doing before, so there are cuts coming that will be very difficult for those who don't have any room to absorb difficulty."

(Hear Mitchell at computer)

(McCrea) Back at his kitchen table, George Mitchell works on a true/false question for his upcoming certification exam...

(Mitchell) "You can attach a serial ATA hard drive as a 2nd drive on a parallel ATA data cable - and that's false...

(McCrea) Mitchell is confident he'll be able to land a job this spring... and he looks back on the last year ... as a valuable lesson.

(Mitchell)" We learned a lot from it. We learned how much we don't need. So in that regard, it was very... uplifting, in a sense. My wife and I are involved in mission work. So this was kind of like a cleansing so to speak - doing away with what we don't need, in preparation for what might be to come. So it's good.

(McCrea) For VPR news, I'm Lynne McCrea.

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