‘NO MIDDLE CLASS’

Poverty and income disparity have become growing trends in Bartholomew County, according to data released recently by the U.S. Census Bureau. Local social service agencies that help low-income individuals said they have also seen the trend and felt the impact.

The statistics are contained in the bureau’s latest American Community Survey, an ongoing statistical survey that helps local officials, community leaders and businesses understand changes taking place in their communities.

Data from the latest five-year estimate, covering 2010-14, showed that 9.2 percent of all Bartholomew County families lived below the poverty level in the prior 12 months. That represented an increase from the previous five-year estimate, covering 2005-09, which showed 7.1 percent of all county families living below the poverty level.

More households used food stamps or Supplemental Assistance Nutritional Program (SNAP) benefits in the prior 12 months, according to the census data, increasing from 7 percent of households from 2005-09 to 10.3 percent from 2010-14.

Family incomes also tended to shift higher or lower, according to the data.

The percentage of families with incomes ranging from $35,000 to $99,999 dropped, while the percentage with incomes of $100,000 or more increased sharply, and the percentage with incomes of $34,999 or less also jumped.

The percentage of families with incomes between $10,000 and $24,999 increased about 37 percent, while the percentage in the $100,000 to $199,999 range rose more than 21 percent.

“That confirms we have no middle class anymore, that it continues to go away and we have more living in poverty,” said Elizabeth Kestler, director of Love Chapel in Columbus, which provides assistance with food, housing and finances.

She said that while Columbus has one of the state’s lowest unemployment rates, more people are employed at service-type jobs that pay low wages and struggle to make ends meet.

Indiana’s current minimum wage of $7.25, the same amount since 2010, equates to $15,080 annually with full-time employment. The federal poverty level for one person is $11,770, but for a family of two it is $15,930.

Kestler said that a person earning $9 an hour — the equivalent of $18,720 annually — could probably get by alone, but if that person has a couple of children to care for that would make doing so difficult.

The average federal poverty level for a family of four for 2010-14 was $22,970 compared to $20,650 for 2005-09.

United Way of Bartholomew County is assisting a lot of clients that make less than $10 per hour, said Mark Stewart, the organization’s president.

The agency has seen an uptick in requests for services, Stewart said. That’s likely the result of better outreach to make people aware of the available services, along with the greater need for assistance.

Larry Perkinson, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. student assistance coordinator, said it takes a full-time income of about $16 an hour — just over $33,000 annually — for a family to live in Columbus.

Love Chapel serves about 1,200 households a month now, compared to 700 to 800 back in 2005, Kestler said.

“We’re seeing an increase in the poverty level based on the cost of living. I believe an increasing number of people we see can’t make ends meet. The problem here is the wages haven’t changed much but the cost of living has changed dramatically,” she said.

Rents in Columbus are higher than in other communities, making it tougher for people to afford housing, Kestler said.

A lot of the working poor not only have jobs that don’t pay high wages, but also don’t provide full-time hours, Kestler and Stewart said. That creates an additional problem of not having medical benefits, Kestler said.

While affording food is an obstacle for those living in poverty, the number of Bartholomew County residents receiving SNAP benefits fell nearly 7 percent from November 2014 to November 2015, according to data from the Family Social Services Administration.

That’s the result of better economic conditions for some people, but also a change in law that ended SNAP benefits for thousands of able-bodied individuals across the state, FSSA spokeswoman Marni Lemons said.

The number of requests for assistance from the Columbus Township Trustee’s Office increased each year from 2011 to 2014, although the total number of recipients fluctuated during that period, according to state reports that the office files. The Columbus office received 1,730 assistance requests in 2011 and 2,059 in 2014.

While requests for help from the trustee’s office with utilities and housing declined during the four-year period, requests for food assistance and emergency shelter increased, according to the reports.

The number of requests for help with food jumped from 638 in 2011 to more than 1,200 in 2013 and 2014.

The total number of nights of emergency shelter ranged from 1,098 to 2,162 for the first three years of the period, but hit 3,500 in 2014.

The effects of the Great Recession, which began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, resulted in a large increase in requests for help by those that never had sought assistance before, said Roxanne Stallworth, chief deputy trustee.

They had been earning higher incomes, but also had the resources of education and transportation that helped them eventually transition out of their tough spots, she said.

During the recession, the office also saw a lot of people come for help who had low incomes and didn’t have a financial safety net, Stallworth said.

The trustee’s office is still seeing a lot of people it hasn’t seen before, but they are people who rely on assistance because they don’t have resources such as higher education to hold jobs that pay higher wages, she said.

Poverty rates in Indiana were greatly affected by the Great Recession, said Matt Kinghorn, a demographer for the Indiana Business Research Center. The state was not fully recovered from the effects of a recession in 2001 and 2002, and household incomes had been stagnant when the Great Recession hit, he said.

An ongoing concern about poverty is the cliff effect, which keeps some people who are receiving public assistance in poverty, Stewart and Kestler said.

That’s when a person earns too much to qualify for benefits — such as SNAP or child care vouchers — and loses them. However, the person then is faced with unaffordable costs because income is not yet high enough to cover them. So, the person finds ways not to exceed a certain income in order to remain eligible for benefits, because the incentive to earn more isn’t great enough, they said.

Work is being done by state lawmakers to change the cliff to a gentle slope so that benefits are phased out for an individual instead of lost all at once, Stewart said.

Where to go for help

Here are some places people can turn to for assistance in Bartholomew County:

Columbus Township Trustee’s Office

Address: 1333 Washington St., Columbus

Phone: 812-372-8249

Human Services Inc.

Address: 4355 E. County Road 600N, Clifford

Phone: 812-372-8407

Love Chapel

Address: 311 Center St., Columbus

Phone: 812-372-9421

Salvation Army

Address: 2525 Illinois St., Columbus

Phone: 812-372-7118

United Way of Bartholomew County

Address: 1531 13th St., Suite 1100, Columbus

Phone: 812-376-3001 for office or dial 211 for initial call for assistance

Pull Quote

“We’re seeing an increase in the poverty level based on the cost of living. I believe an increasing number of people we see can’t make ends meet. The problem here is the wages haven’t changed much but the cost of living has changed dramatically.” 

— Elizabeth Kestler, director of Love Chapel

Author photo
Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.