When the New Haven nonprofit Christian Community Action saw a 32 percent jump in demand for Thanksgiving turkeys, Executive Director Rev. Bonita Grubbs knew New Haven residents were hurting. Now she has the statistics to prove it.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey showed that poverty in Connecticut had increased more than in any other state that year. And the poverty rate in New Haven is among the worst in the state. Twenty-seven percent of city residents and over 34 percent of children under the age of 18 live below the federal poverty line of $21,200 annually for a family of four in 2008. But just as the need for their services increases, city nonprofits are struggling to handle the added stress.
“In the last year, we ran out of food in our pantry twice,” said Amos Smith, the president and CEO of Community Action Agency of New Haven, a multiservice antipoverty agency. And he said that the organization’s fuel assistance program, which helps families pay their home heating bills, was “vastly overbooked” this winter.
Smith said that in total, CAANH served 2,500 more people in 2008 than in 2007.
And the Christian Community Action is facing unprecedented demand for many of its services, Grubbs said, including placement in its temporary housing facilities.
“We’re experiencing real difficulty finding all the necessary housing,” she said.
Indeed, demand is always high for their service, but now their wait-list has grown to 50 families.
“The level of children living in poverty in many Connecticut cities is pretty horrifying,” said Jamey Bell, the executive director of Connecticut Voices for Children, a policy research group. “The cumulative effects of poverty on development and education are almost insurmountable.”
But the federal poverty line underestimates what it costs to live in Connecticut, Bell said, suggesting that an even larger percentage of families are struggling during the recession.
“The federal poverty level is a gross, blunt measure. It isn’t livable by any means,” she said.
Connecticut uses a standard of roughly 200 percent greater than the federal level as a guideline for “self-sufficient” living in the state, she said, “and we don’t know how many people are living below that.”
“We’ve been seeing people in need of help from a broader range of income groups than we’ve ever seen before, people who have never needed help before,” Smith said.
More people from all income brackets are losing their jobs in the current crisis, he said, which is a clear indication that the job market has yet to turn around. The state’s unemployment rate increased to 8.1 percent last month.
Asked whether the city is capable of dealing with increasing poverty levels, Smith replied simply: “No.”
“New Haven nonprofits have been hit hard by the economy,” he said.
And the delay in Hartford to pass a budget — one of the longest delays in the state’s history — has put additional strain on local nonprofits, Smith said.
It took the General Assembly until Sept. 1 to pass a budget for the fiscal year 2010, which began on July 1, and the fiscal year 2011.
“Many nonprofits are struggling since the fiscal year began without a budget,” Connecticut Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney of New Haven said last month. He said that between July 1 and Sept. 1, a number of nonprofits saw reductions in the amount they received from the state, as Gov. M. Jodi Rell did not provide full funding to them in her executive order.
Indeed, Grubbs said Christian Community Action saw an $11,000 state housing grant “dry up” four months ago.
“We’re having financial difficulties like many other organizations,” she said, difficulties that are making it harder for them to do their jobs effectively.
The only Connecticut city with worse numbers than New Haven is Hartford, with 34 percent of residents and 46 percent of children living in poverty.