Volunteers help load goods for the Good Neighbor Food Pantry. (Photo by Alan Carey)

This is the first installment in a two-part series of articles examining the impact of the financial downturn.

Although their business has failed, their home just barely escaped foreclosure and they both suffer from disabilities and cannot make ends meet, you won’t hear a discouraging word from Douglas and Judy Fox. Sitting at their kitchen table, Doug declares, “I’m not gonna stop moving my sights forward.”

Over the course of their 38 years of marriage, Doug and Judy, childhood sweethearts from the Tillson/Rosendale area, worked hard, raised two children, purchased a modest home and, in 1995, began a commercial cleaning business. Their plan was to grow the business and eventually sell it to a larger firm, using the proceeds to fund their retirement.

A powerfully-built 58-year-old with a salt-and-pepper mustache, Doug explains how things have gotten more difficult over the past ten years. During the early 2000s, as clients began cutting back on cleaning services and competitors introduced cut-throat pricing, Doug began to suffer from arthritis. A rugged, hands-on individual, Doug found himself increasingly unable to perform. Each month, it became harder to meet payroll for the company’s 15 full-time and 15 half-time employees. A five-year downward spiral came to an end in 2006, when he was forced to close the company.

Having refinanced the house several times to fund the business, Doug and Judy are now carrying a $1600 monthly mortgage payment. “I had to figure out what to do,” recalls Doug, noting that he found several jobs, most recently at Carquest Auto Parts in Saugerties. But when his arthritis made it impossible for him to load the heavy parts, he could not continue. Now, he works part-time as a school lunch monitor, hopes to earn a bit more by building websites and is exploring the possibility of training to become a teacher’s assistant.

Doug and Judy ‘shop’ at Woodstock’s Good Neighbor Food Pantry, where Judy is also an active volunteer. Although they are struggling financially, Doug is not interested in exploring eligibility for food stamps or other assistance. “I’m not a strong believer in social services programs when you’re still able to work,” he explains. “I don’t think that’s a thing to go look at to try to help you with your house or anything like that. Save that for people that really need it. I’ll figure it out,” he says assuredly.

Douglas and Judy Fox are not an isolated case. Many local residents are likewise trying to ‘figure it out.’ Otia Lee, President of Phoenicia’s Helping Hands Food Pantry, tells the story of a little girl who refused to attend school because she was embarrassed by the growls from her empty stomach. A town worker in Olive recounts how the requests from families for the town’s annual Adopt-a-Family Christmas Tree event have changed over the past few years, from games and toys to necessities such as winter coats, shoes and mittens. Thurman Greco, of Woodstock’s Good Neighbor Food Pantry, notes that there are homeless people who spend their nights in an unheated bathroom at the Woodstock Town Hall, on the back porches of Tinker St. businesses and in tents in the woods.

Even during the best of times, some people are left out in the cold. But those who are on the frontlines of local relief and anti-poverty efforts underline that the economic downturn that began in 2007 has created, and continues to create severe economic hardship for people who have been at least somewhat insulated from past recessions. It is affecting “the foundation” of local society — long-time homeowners with steady jobs, says Carol Galione-Buskey, Program Services Manager for the Rural Ulster Preservation Company (RUPCO), a non-profit housing and community development organization.

Despite the technical end of recession in June 2009, modest declines in unemployment rates in recent months, and generally rising stock market prices, daily life remains a struggle for many local residents.

 

Shandaken poorer than Woodstock, Olive

U.S. Census Bureau data suggests that, within the Woodstock/Olive/Shandaken area, the number of people encountering severe financial difficulties is greatest in Shandaken. Along with Kingston and Ellenville, Shandaken ranks among Ulster County’s most economically depressed areas, according to Family of Woodstock Executive Director Michael Berg.

Census Bureau poverty estimates for small towns are issued only every five years. That means that the latest figures, covering 2006-2010, don’t completely reflect the impact of the economic downturn, the full effect of which hit in 2008. The most recent estimates show that over the five years ending in 2010, of the 3,153 Shandaken residents for whom the census Bureau was able to determine poverty status, 16.4% were living below the Federal poverty level, including 28.5% of those under the age of 18. Because the figures represent a five-year average starting in 2006, current poverty levels are likely much higher. The Federal poverty level for a single person household is annual income below $10,830, or $14,570 for a two-person household, or $22,050 for a four-person household.

The same 2006-2010 Census Bureau figures show considerably lower rates of poverty in Woodstock and Olive. Of the 2,425 Woodstock residents for whom the Census Bureau was able to determine poverty status over the 2006-2010 period, 14.2% were judged to be living below the Federal poverty level.

Average rates for those years were even lower in Olive, where 10.3% of those surveyed were judged to be living below the poverty level.

What the Census Bureau estimates do show is that poverty is highest among families with children and single parent families headed by a woman. In Shandaken, families with children are more than three times as likely to be living below the Federal poverty level as families without children. Among single parent families with no father present, more than half (53.9%) were estimated to be living below the poverty level. In Olive, families with children are twice as likely to be living in poverty as those without.

In Woodstock, the Census Bureau data shows that families with children are about 50% more likely to be living below the poverty level.

 

Feeling powerless

Volunteers and staffers at local frontline organizations see no signs of recovery. Continuing high unemployment and sharply higher prices for food, gas and heating oil, combined with scarce affordable housing and skyrocketing medical costs, are making it difficult or impossible for more and more local residents to make ends meet. Not to mention the devastating impact of Tropical Storms Irene and Lee on homes and businesses in the area.

“People feel so powerless, that there’s nothing they can do about food prices or gas prices or any of these things,” says Victoria Langling, the founder and director of Woodstock’s Daily Bread Soup Kitchen and an advisor to the Hudson Valley Food Bank. “Everyone is on edge and so nervous,” she explains, adding that economic tension has been rising to a fever pitch over the past two years. The cost of feeding a family of four in Ulster County jumped about 12 percent last year alone, according to the county’s market basket report. Over the past six years, gasoline prices have gone from a national average of $2.796/gallon in 2006 to $3.726 last week.

“It’s clear that there are more and more people with fewer and fewer resources,” adds Ulster County United Way President Stacey Rein. “It’s worse than we’ve ever seen it.”

In Kingston, which can be considered the employment basin for the surrounding, mostly residential towns, unemployment has increased from an annual rate of 4.4% in 2007 to 7.8% at the end of last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Langling is among those who insist that the real unemployment rate is much higher, because the ‘official’ rate excludes those who have ‘maxed out’ their benefits and dropped off the unemployment rolls.

No wonder that the Good Neighbor Food Pantry is currently serving some 1,600 people every month, compared to 100-to-125 before the onset of the economic downturn in 2008. Demand for the array of emergency services offered by Family of Woodstock has likewise mushroomed. Last year, 153,643 sought assistance from Family of Woodstock, nearly double the 79,849 who sought help in 2007. “Across the board, without issue, every single program providing emergency human services is seeing a significant increase, 30-to-50 percent or more,” says Langling, who, in addition to helping provide food to the hungry is also a former chairperson of the Ulster County Workforce development Board.

 

Shrinking sales

It is thanks to services and support, from both non-profit organizations and government entitlements, that many local residents are able to keep their heads above water. Take the case of Jerry (a pseudonym), a formerly self-employed entrepreneur. Thanks to about $700 from Social Security, income from a few odd jobs, help with the $1000 a month mortgage from his roommate and food from Phoenicia’s Helping Hands food pantry, Jerry is getting by. “It works at a very precarious level,” he says. “If the car dies or needs major repairs, or I have a major health crisis, that’s a big problem. If I have a bad month or two with no work, there’s not that much more belt tightening to do.”

Until five years ago, Jerry was, in his words “doing adequately,” earning $30-to-35,000 a year selling collectibles related to American history from his home and at various shows and auctions, locally and across the country. His bread-and-butter clientele, he explains, consisted of “solid, middle class people who could afford to spend $500 on something they really wanted but did not need.” As the economy deteriorated, that part of the market started drying up.”

To compensate for shrinking sales, Jerry reduced his expenses, began to cut down on the number of shows where he exhibited, and stopped replenishing his inventory. “The business became unviable. Every trip became a crap shoot, where, with all the expenses, I could lose more money than I would make,” he says. During the spring of 2011, Jerry had little choice but to shut the business down. Since then, he says he has been living “on the knife’s edge between lower middle income and being poor. The things that distinguish it only come to a few hundred dollars a month — being able to have internet access or putting gas in the car or buying a couple of treats to put in the refrigerator. The bottom is very close.”

 

Outliving your funds

The elderly are particularly vulnerable. Thurman Greco tells of a 73-year-old man who has been visiting the Good Neighbor Food Pantry every week since his business failed in 2008, explaining that he would go hungry were it not for the food pantry.

The lack of public transportation and door-to-door transport services leaves many of the elderly housebound, unable to shop or travel to Kingston for social or health care services. A 2010 community survey carried out by Family of Woodstock on behalf of the Ulster County Office for the Aging shows that the top priorities among the elderly are financial assistance, transportation issues and home maintenance. “The top concerns of seniors according to the community survey in order of concern are: rising property and school taxes; having a doctor who is supportive of their desire to live independently; and that there is easy access to nurses, aides, physical therapy in the community,” the report says.

“Poverty goes up as people get older, as they outlive their funds. Also, women are more vulnerable than men,” stresses Janet Caffo, Director of Continuing Care in the Ulster County Office for the Aging. She is quick to add though that Social Security provides a safety net that is unavailable to younger people.

The challenges of transportation and rural isolation can only increase as the local population ages. In Woodstock, those 60 and older accounted for about 36% of the year-round population in 2010, a 46% increase from 2000. The proportion of seniors in Olive has also increased dramatically, to 27% of the population, a 40% increase from a decade earlier.

For young and old and everyone in between, the ongoing effects of the economic downturn infuse all facets of life, as economic hardship insidiously contaminates personal and family relationships. “I met someone the other day who had a construction business, a wife and a beautiful home,” recounts one local woman who depends on weekly trips to the food pantry to feed her family. “With the economy as it is, he had no work. Everything backslid. He was living off his credit cards, which he couldn’t pay. He took a second mortgage on the house and ended up losing his home and his wife and the whole enchilada. It took him several months before he would consider standing on line for the food pantry.”++