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Recession’s aftershocks take toll on middle class

Families give in to government aid

- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2011

Years after the recession's peak, its effects caught up to middle-class residents initially insulated from its wrath. More people who still have jobs, even full time, are toiling without health insurance, and families whose savings carried them through months of hard times have been reluctantly applying for food stamps.

Year-over-year census figures released Thursday detail a population being pulled apart by opposing forces during the aftershocks of a recession. Rent is higher while homes are worth less. Household income decreased in 35 states last year and increased in none, yet many expenses have gone up.

In the Washington region, the median family income fell from $104,000 to $100,000 between 2009 and 2010, and per-capita income fell more than $1,000 to $40,500.

The unemployment rate may be lower than it once was, but employers have scaled back benefits offered to full-time workers or bumped them just below full-time status, preventing them from qualifying.

Those who never dreamed of receiving government assistance are now struggling to deal with a confusing and overwhelmed bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, rent and other living expenses have risen. Nearly 40 percent of Washington-area renters paid $1,500 or more a month, significantly more than a year prior. Fewer renters — about 10 percent — made payments of $750 or less.

"If I go to the grocery store, I see how much it goes up, and I'm not getting what I used to get. There are people coming out who wouldn't have applied before," said Linda Horn, benefit programs manager for the city of Alexandria.

"We got this big boom a few years ago, but we're seeing a steady increase every month in the number of people that are applying and being approved."

Nearly 15 percent of workers in Alexandria didn't have health insurance. Half of the unemployed went without insurance compared with 45 percent the year prior. Nearly 9 percent received food stamps, up from 6.6 percent in 2008 and 7.8 percent in 2009.

The percentage of workers with insurance coverage from employers decreased in 41 states. Virginia was one of six states in which the rate of even full-time, year-round workers who have health insurance declined significantly.

"Health insurance cost has increased faster than the rate of inflation, and what resulted is that a lot of small and medium-sized businesses are finding it difficult to maintain coverage," said state Sen. George L. Barker, a Northern Virginia Democrat whose small-business commission spent a year studying health insurance.

"What is also happening is insurance is available, but the portion the employee has to pay is so high they can't afford it."

Victims of layoffs who received a continuation of coverage, which often is paid for several months by the employer and can then be continued by the recipient, were covered through the height of the recession, but by last year, they were on their own.

"People do COBRA when they are initially unemployed and then they get to the point where they can't afford it. When someone loses a job, the ones who are most likely to want to have the coverage are the ones with significant illnesses, and consequently the cost of COBRA is very high," said Mr. Barker.

In the Washington area, 83.7 percent of workers had private insurance, down from 86 percent, and the uninsured rate among the unemployed rose to 42.7 percent.

"This is a typical situation where the unemployment rate starts turning around and indicates we're heading in the right direction, but as far as how it affects individuals, it takes a while to catch up," Mr. Barker said.

Whether it took years to wear down a hard-wired reticence to seek help from the government or to exhaust a rainy-day fund, there were unmistakable signs that years after the housing bubble burst and the stock market spiraled, a new segment of the middle class is seeking financial assistance for the first time.

In nearly every county in Maryland and Virginia, more of the population collected food stamps than in 2009. In Montgomery County, one in 20 collected food stamps last year — double the number of a few years prior. The bleeding did not slow in the year between 2009 and 2010; it got worse.

Most of Thursday's economic statistics for the area were buoyed by the District, which saw a rare increase in income and fewer poverty indicators.

Megan Cairns, 23, couldn't find a job in her chosen field after college, so she joined AmeriCorps.

"I don't think I would have done it otherwise," she said.

Now she spends her days helping the needy at Bread for the City, but at a stipend of $800 per month she can hardly afford food herself. She saw another AmeriCorps member with a food-stamps application and found out that though they work full time, their income level qualifies them for the program.

"It's kind of a new experience for me," she said as she waited for her name to be called to apply at a human-services center in Northeast Washington. "Probably a lot of people from a middle-class background don't know about the social services. This is an intimidating process."

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