Volunteer Carol Buckner, right, meets with Jewell Thompson to help her apply for utility assistance at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s offices in Anderson on Thursday. St. Vincent de Paul and other local organizations continue to see high numbers of residents needing help to pay utility bills, grocery costs and other necessities. Photo by Andy Knight | The Herald Bulletin
Volunteer Carol Buckner, right, meets with Jewell Thompson to help her apply for utility assistance at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s offices in Anderson on Thursday. St. Vincent de Paul and other local organizations continue to see high numbers of residents needing help to pay utility bills, grocery costs and other necessities. Photo by Andy Knight | The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON — When she looks over her household finances, Shayler Gibbs says she sees many things to be concerned about. “I’m pretty obsessive about my budget,” the 31-year-old single mother said. “I read through it every day. I think that it brings a lot of stress that you wouldn’t have if you have your basic needs met.”

For Gibbs and hundreds of other Madison County residents, meeting basic financial obligations including rent, utility and grocery costs amid unrelenting inflation is a formidable challenge. So a recent analysis by Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center focused on factors affecting children’s lives, likely rings hollow.

The analysis, based on Census Bureau data as well as information from the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, found that child poverty in the United States has fallen by 59% since 1993.

The trend, according to The New York Times, crosses ethnic, demographic and geographic lines, with child poverty levels decreasing in every state, among both single and two-parent households and at roughly equal rates for white, Black, Hispanic and Asian families.

Local officials who work with residents at or below the federal poverty level were stunned to hear of the findings. According to the Heart of Indiana United Way’s biannual financial hardship study on ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) households, about 17% of the county’s households were considered in poverty in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available.

Many agencies are dealing with unprecedented numbers of residents in need of help to pay utility bills and cover grocery costs and other necessities.

“I’m shocked that (child) poverty has gone down that much,” said Keith Olson, president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which last year assisted more than 600 low-income families. “We still see it in Anderson, in our ZIP codes across the area. We still see poverty with families with children.”

Olson estimates that about half the agency’s clients have children still living at home. He said government programs including food stamps, more robust earned-income tax credits and an expansion of Medicaid — which has seen more than 17 million new enrollees nationwide in the last two years — have helped, but added that steps can be taken to make them even more effective.

“Those programs are very much being used by our clients here in town,” he said, “but sometimes they’re not always open on Saturdays, and many of our folks we have come through do work on some type of basis during the week, and they can’t always get away.”

A particularly complicated part of the issue, according to some local experts, is that many families’ incomes hover just above a level that would qualify them for a variety of government assistance programs. With many households seeing both parents working full time, child care and early childhood education costs have become regular line items in family budgets.

Additionally, technological advances have made higher-cost items like cellphones and internet service indispensable for many, thus making a true definition of poverty more nebulous.

“In the 1960s, did the Social Security Administration foresee the rising costs of child care and education?” said Jenni Marsh, president and CEO of Heart of Indiana United Way. “How could they have predicted the invention of the cellphone and the legitimate need for everyone to have one for safety and connectivity? They could not have seen those kinds of household expenses coming.”

Gibbs said she was laid off at the beginning of the pandemic and found her current job — a remote position as a travel guide, with a lower salary than her previous job — about a year ago. Making ends meet for her and her twin 11-year-old daughters, she said, has involved sacrifice and careful planning.

“Something as simple as groceries, household items … I have to think about the weekend when I have to feed them three meals (a day) because they’re not in school,” Gibbs said. “We’ve had to cut back on going out, any entertainment, any extracurriculars, things like that. We’re just at home, and we’re just trying to survive.”
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