Sandra Wilkes: A picture of need in Rowan

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 18, 2011

By Sandra Wilkes
Special to the Salisbury Post
Seeing the lobby of the Rowan County Department of Social Services filled to capacity every day puts a face on how the poor economy is seriously affecting our citizens.
Many visitors to DSS are solid, middle class citizens who have lost their jobs, their unemployment benefits and their savings. Many own their homes but cannot pay their utilities, nor can they buy food.
Almost half the households in Rowan County are now being helped through Medicaid, Food and Nutrition Services (the new program name for food stamps), and Work First benefits. Likely there are many others who would qualify for assistance if they applied.
These programs are helping the elderly, disabled, unemployed and other low-income families get the medical care they need, have food on the table for their children and keep up with paying their rent and utility bills.
Others in the DSS lobby may be waiting to see a social worker to get help with paying for services that go beyond food and medical care. For example, parents are getting help with the cost of day care for their children, and disabled adults are getting stipends to enable them to live at home instead of having to move into assisted-living facilities. In past years, families were able to handle many of these expenses themselves.
The anxiety caused by the economic downturn has had an even harsher effect on some families. Parents without a church or a circle of friends to turn to for support sometimes take out their frustrations upon their own children. There has been an increase in the number of reports of child abuse and neglect, and that increase is attributed at least in part to parents who cannot cope and who turn to drugs or other addictions, often leaving their children to fend for themselves.
There is no bright side of this slowdown in our economy. But economists suggest that public assistance programs can jump start a bad economy. Each dollar spent flows back into the economy, whether that dollar was from one’s paycheck or from one’s public assistance check.
Food help: $36 million
The Department of Agriculture has gone so far as to say that for every dollar spent by way of an Electronic Benefits Transfer transaction — that’s when an EBT card is swiped at the grocery checkout to access Food and Nutrition Services benefits — the economy expands by $1.84. That dollar helps pay the grocery store employees, the truck driver who drove the produce to the store and the farmer who grew the produce. Not everyone will agree with this analysis.
During the last fiscal year, July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2011, the value of Food and Nutrition Services benefits issued to Rowan County households was $35,946,840. The average number of households that received benefits each month was 10,671, and the average amount of benefits per household was $280 a month. Children lived in about half of these households.
In fact, there were 2,182 children living in food assistance households where the income was less than $500 per month, and there were 1,669 children living in households without any monthly income. These are unprecedented numbers of residents who are struggling with no wages or low wages.
Medicaid: $163 million
The Medicaid program puts even more dollars into the local economy. By the end of June, there were 23,725 individual Rowan County residents who were authorized for Medicaid. Last fiscal year, $163,049,159 was paid out to physicians, pharmacists, hospitals and other medical providers on behalf of these individuals. Of that amount, $92,145,818 was paid to Rowan County providers, and the remainder, $70,903,341, was paid to out-of-county providers. The average payment on behalf of each Medicaid recipient was $6,872 for a year’s medical services.
Hundreds of families in Rowan County would answer “yes” to the question: “Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed and when you did not have the money to see a doctor or get a prescription filled?”
Child support: $10 million
After Food and Nutrition Services and Medicaid, the next largest benefit passed on to citizens was in child support payments. Through the DSS Child Support Enforcement program, $10,238,405 was collected from non-custodial parents, and these collections were turned over to parents who had physical custody of their children.
Assistance issued to families through other programs included $4,602,557 in Child Day Care subsidies, $3,928,200 in Foster Care and Adoption Assistance, $2,202,018 in Special Assistance payments for those in Adult Care Homes, and $1,826,916 in Emergency and Seasonal Assistance payments. There were benefits issued to recipients of other programs, such as Work First and Adult Day Care, bringing the amount of assistance issued last year to a grand total of $223,755,881. Five years ago, the amount of assistance in those same programs totaled $169,733,429.
The administrative cost for issuing the $223.8 million in benefits was just over $11.3 million, or 5.1 percent of the total benefits issued. The county’s share of the administrative costs was $4.1 million.
As costly as these programs are to taxpayers and as large as the assistance payments appear to be, the benefits issued only meet the minimal needs of individuals and families who are suffering. The programs administered by Rowan County DSS, as well as the assistance provided by other human service agencies, should not be viewed as charity or welfare. These programs provide a temporary safety net to those trying to get back on their feet. These programs are their lifeline.
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Sandra Wilkes is director of the Rowan County Department of Social Services.