Poverty rises in Mono County

That historic spike occurred in Mammoth Lakes at the Mono County Department of Social Services this spring. Where normally 15 people seek relief daily, they numbered up to 90, with the majority applying for the CalFresh food program.

Some had never before experienced poverty.

“You’ll see people that are so uncomfortable that I just want to say they break your heart because you know they have really hit a hard time,” said Julie Tiede, Director of Social Services. “You know they don’t want to be there.”

“Another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty in the United States last year,” the New York Times reported Sept. 13, “and the number of Americans living below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, was the highest number in the 52 years the [census] bureau has been publishing figures on it.”

While the national poverty rate grew to close to 15 percent of the overall population, 9.8 percent of Mono County’s households experience poverty, according to an economic file at dot.ca.gov.

That report, however, did not indicate the average number of people comprising a household.
An increasing need for food has occurred over the past four years, starting with 120 county households in 2007. The increase might be due to outreach, but Mary Stanley, Social Services Program Manager, observed an increase in the number of families who qualify.

“There is not sufficient income to meet nutritional needs,” Stanley said.

As of last Tuesday, 339 households receive food assistance.

Take a father of a working family with a teenager and a mortgage. His wife comes down with a chronic, major medical condition. She can no longer keep her job. Her illness is so profound she loses her insurance and so debilitating that the father must cut back his work hours to deal with runs to the emergency room.

The impact is life changing, devastating.

The family has lost the ability to live life the way they used to, medical bills skyrocket, and family income is cut in half. They find themselves at the door of Mono County’s Department of Social Services.
“The majority of the extreme, life-changing factors of people coming in here have had to do with health-related problems, some of them catastrophic in nature,” said Stanley.

In the case of the typical, hypothetical case that she described above, a family may qualify for food, medical care, and in-home supportive services.

There are 16.4 million poor children nationwide, 950,000 more than a year ago, according to the Children’s Welfare fund.

Out of Mono County’s 14,202 residents, 1,279 qualified for mediCAL benefits in August. Of those, only 67 are age 65 or older, but 755 are 0 to 18 years old, including 647 who officially live in poverty, according to Stanley.

It’s hard for families with low income to find permanent housing in the county, according to Stanley, who recently tried to help a household find a place to live. They landed in a homeless shelter in Kern County.

Homeless shelters are operated by nonprofit organizations in most counties and many of those organizations are faith based. Given the absence of such a shelter in Mono County, and the environment and weather, homelessness can be an emergency.

“When we find a family we have to move on it,” said Tiede. “There is no option here. They’ve got to be protected.”

“In the summer they’re transients, in winter they are seasonal employees,” said Stanley. “Most are single individuals and we have no program for them.”

Homeless children are a different matter. Through Child Welfare Services, the county helps families to relocate out of the county to become stable,” said Tiede.

For a first person account of homeless life in the county, see accompanying story.

In July, county unemployment fell to 11.2 percent compared to 13 percent in May. The July figure is slightly lower than the state’s 12.1 percent reported by the bureau of labor statistics Sept. 16. However, the county figure is not seasonally adjusted and employment in Mono County definitely depends on the season.

This year’s weather brought a late summer and “summer employment did not start up ... there wasn’t the normal pickup in construction. Some workers experienced hour reductions from 40 to 10 [weekly].

“Those very well paying [construction] jobs have all dried up here, elevating [applications for] our CalFresh program and putting more families in need. They get service jobs at a far less salary than they were working before,” said Stanley.

“I will say for the rest of the year, I feel pretty secure that we can continue the services,” said Tiede, “but the federal budget is not in yet and we are really keeping our eye on that, and the state budget, too.”

Poverty appeared twice on the Board of Supervisors agenda last Tuesday, first as ongoing discussions about a budget decision to discontinue funding of elder care through the Inyo-Mono Area Agency on Aging, and second, as a change of administration for a federal program that provides housing vouchers to low-income individuals (often referred to as Section 8).

While Section 8 administration by state government has previously limited the number of vouchers in the county to 18, there is optimism that a new administration of the program through Stanislaus County will allow more vouchers, according to Mary Booher of the county Housing Authority.

Those stricken by poverty in Mono county need all the help they can get.