Listen: PKG: Poor in recession (Baxter)

MPR’s Annie Baxter reports on ways that recession can be even tougher for low-income families.

Families of every economic stripe have had a tough time during the recession, and recovering may take a long time. For those who were already living on the financial edge before the recession hit, the economic blows can be even more punishing.


2009 Minnesota AP Award, honorable mention in Writing - Radio Division, Class Three category


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ANNIE BAXTER: If the recession has pulled the rug out from under people, it has pulled the rug, the floorboards, and the whole foundation out from under a woman we'll call Cheryl. She asked us to use a pseudonym because she's ashamed that she, her husband, and four daughters are homeless. She's been keeping it a secret.

CHERYL: None of my family know my situation right now. They talk about me and stuff, so I'd just rather be by myself and do it by myself.

ANNIE BAXTER: Until last winter, she and her husband were actually getting by OK. Cheryl, who's 26, worked as a school bus driver. Her husband was able to find temp work, despite a criminal background. Money was tight, but their budget was manageable. Then things got complicated. Due to the recession, her husband's work dried up.

CHERYL: The temp starts in like, well, we don't have no work for you.

ANNIE BAXTER: On top of that, Cheryl was pregnant. The one-month-old baby she cradles in her arms today is healthy, but the pregnancy was extremely trying. She suffered unrelenting morning sickness.

CHERYL: I was in the hospital a lot for weeks at a time, so I couldn't work. So I lost my job, which resulted to me couldn't pay my rent.

ANNIE BAXTER: Unemployment insurance and food stamps helped some. But then the family was evicted at the end of April. Cheryl is part of a growing number of families who are losing their homes in the recession. She and her daughters landed at a homeless shelter in North Minneapolis. Cheryl says her husband was too proud to go to a shelter and slept in the car.

CHERYL: He didn't want to come in. And now that he see how stressful I am, like my hair done fell out a lot and everything, he's like, well, I'll come in to help you with the kids.

ANNIE BAXTER: That hasn't happened yet and may not because the shelter doesn't admit felons. Leslie Frost, the executive director of Families Moving Forward, which runs the shelter, sees a lot of low-income families in similar situations. When middle-class families experience housing problems, possibly losing a home to foreclosure, they typically become renters. But when low-income renters hit the skids, Frost says, they may enter a very stressful period of homelessness because they can't find cheaper housing.

LESLIE FROST: The recession has meant that the families that are in affordable housing are not moving out because they can't get better jobs and get better incomes and graduate. So the affordable housing market is in gridlock and the low end of the rental housing is at zero vacancy.

ANNIE BAXTER: Shelters around the metro area report higher demand and longer stays in the recession. At the same time, their own budgets are tightening. Families moving forward feared having to shut down due to declining revenues. Frost says they laid off staff and are turning away nearly 300 families a month.

LESLIE FROST: It would normally mean that 1,000 people, almost 400 of them under the age of six, and less than 400 adults, and the rest school-aged kids.

ANNIE BAXTER: Many other indicators show the recession is squeezing poor Minnesotans. Stacy Dean with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says, food stamp usage has been rising in Minnesota.

STACY DEAN: Between March 2008 and March 2009, Minnesota's caseload grew by 14%.

ANNIE BAXTER: That's about 40,000 people. And that recent increase is nearly three times the jump that the state saw just a couple of years before. And as those numbers climb, experts fear more families will become homeless, as Cheryl's did.

But Cheryl's story does have some bright spots. It looks like the bus company will take her back as a driver this summer. And after a tough search, she found an affordable place to live. The family will move in July. Cheryl's 11-year-old is excited about the new apartment.

SPEAKER: I'm happy. I can't wait to go. So I can meet new friends and see what school I'm going to go to, and just relax at my house.

ANNIE BAXTER: Housing funds from the federal stimulus package are expected to start flowing this summer. They're aimed at preventing more families from falling into homelessness. It's unclear how much of a dent they'll make. Annie Baxter, Minnesota Public Radio News, Minneapolis.


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