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Looming jobless benefits cut comes as demand grows at some Elkhart social service agencies

A cut in food stamps aid in November and the looming elimination of federal jobless benefits have the unemployed and underemployed here jittery.
Posted on Dec. 26, 2013 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Dec. 26, 2013 at 5:46 p.m.

ELKHART — Federal jobless benefits are set to end, and Louis Maldonado, for one, doesn't see much good coming of it.

“If they do, you know how crazy things are going to get?” the recent unemployment benefit applicant said, exiting the Elkhart office of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, or DWD. “It's going to be a lot, a lot of robbing.”

His view, perhaps, may be an extreme one. Nevertheless, the looming expiration of federal unemployment benefits Saturday, Dec. 28, has plenty in Elkhart County on edge, including those hit hardest by the down economy of the late 2000s and early 2010s.

Sure, things may be better, marginally. Elkhart County was hit hard by the recession, though, and plenty are still suffering, a point made over and over by advocates here for the poor. Indeed, the cut in jobless benefits, on top of a Nov. 1 reduction in food stamps, is likely to increase the pressure on social service agencies here, increasing the sense of desperation for some.

“Our numbers are bigger now than they ever have been,” said Charlie Goethals, the volunteer director of St. John's Food Pantry at St. John's Episcopal Church here. Conventional wisdom would have demand at St. John's tapering as the worst of the economic downturn recedes in the rearview mirror, but in fact, it's gone up, he said, from 40 to 60 clients per session up to 80 or more.

Others tell similar stories.

Usually demand at Susanna's Kitchen at the First Congregational United Church of Christ here tapers at the end of each summer, when kids return to class and tap into school food programs instead of the soup kitchen. That didn't happen this year, though, and about 100 people a day now seek lunch at Susanna's, up from around 80 a year ago, said Judie Hyatte-Howie, the kitchen manager.

She worries the number will grow even more after federal jobless benefits go away, but, like many, also notes the impact of underemployment and low wages.

“A lot of these people work, but they can't make it on a minimum wage of $7.25 (an hour),” she said. “So they have to supplement somewhere along the way.”

19,000 HOOSIERS TO LOSE BENEFITS

To temper the impact of the U.S. recession, the federal government implemented a series of jobless benefit extensions starting in 2008 to help the unemployed. Those end, effective Saturday, and after that, the jobless here will only be able to tap 26 weeks' worth of Indiana unemployment benefits, down from 63 weeks when counting federal benefits as well.

Likewise, the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 boosted aid provided via the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps. That, too, was meant to help those hit hardest by the recession, but the increase was phased out Nov. 1.

All told, 19,000 recipients across Indiana will see an end to federal unemployment benefits Saturday, leaving the 43,000 who tap state jobless benefits, according to the DWD. Recipients get, on average, $270 per week, according to DWD spokesman Joe Frank.

“We definitely recommend that folks currently receiving benefits visit their local WorkOne as soon as possible to get help with their job search,” Frank said in an email. WorkOne centers, offered through the DWD, provide job-search assistance and other aid for those seeking employment.

The food stamps cut was implemented across the board, meaning the number of recipients didn't change, they all just started getting less, $36 per month less in the case of a family of four getting maximum benefits.

Coming in January, the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration will change the monthly food stamp distribution schedule. Recipients won't get less, however, they'll just get their benefits on different days.

'A CONTINUAL WORRY'

Jennifer Ivers, of Elkhart, finishing up a meal of hot dogs and macaroni and cheese at Susanna's Kitchen, sees the increased demand at the soup kitchen. “There's a lot more people than what there used to be,” she said, surrounded by her three boys, also finishing their meals.

The unemployed woman doesn't qualify for jobless benefits, thus the looming cut Saturday won't impact her. But she was hit by the reduction in food stamps benefits and knows what it is to scrape to survive. She uses every bit of food she can get from food pantries and never lets leftovers go to waste.

“It's stressful. It's a continual worry,” she said.

Over at the DWD on Waterfall Drive, Lamesha Dugger noted the tough job market. She came here from Milwaukee to look for work at the insistence of her mother, an Elkhart resident, but so far hasn't found anything.

“It's not going good here with the job (search),” Dugger said upon leaving the DWD office, where she got help with her search. Axing federal jobless benefits will “hurt a lot of people.”

Still, it's not all gloom and doom.

Maldonado, the man who warned of an uptick of robberies with the end of federal jobless benefits, is hopeful he'll soon get hired back at the factory that recently laid him off. He only recently received his first unemployment check.

“Really, unemployment, it's not my thing,” he said.

Robert Neal, who had just received his last unemployment check ahead of the looming federal change, didn't express alarm over the halt in benefits. As he left the DWD office, he noted a line on a factory job that he's going to pursue, plus the comfort offered by his faith in God.

“I'm not worried,” he said. “I have God for one. He'll make it work for me.”

Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack.


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