With his jobless benefits depleted months ago, Calvin Hill rode his bike more than two miles in the middle of the night Monday to get in line for extra food to feed his family.
Hill, a 53-year-old Chattanoogan who lost his job at Koch Foods more than a year ago, joined scores of others this week waiting for help from Metropolitan Ministries.
"Being 53 years old is hard because it seems like everybody today wants to hire young kids," he said.
Hill considers himself lucky this week because he got to the McCallie Avenue mission in time to make the cutoff for those getting help. Others are not so lucky.
"My electricity is supposed to be cut off today and I don't know what I'm going to do," said Beverly Davis, a 48-year-old woman who was too late to get in at Metropolitan Ministries because the lines were too long.
Despite recent signs of economic improvement, the slumping economy pushed more Chattanoogans like Hill and Davis into poverty last year. The U.S. Census Bureau reported Tuesday that one of every four persons living in the city of Chattanooga last year fell below the poverty level, up nearly 5 percent from the previous year.
Poverty income limits
The government defines the poverty level based upon family size and income:
* One person, up to $10,830
* Two-person family, up to $14,570
* Three-person family, up to $18,310
* Four-person family, up to $22,050
* Five-person family, up to $25,790
* Six-person family, up to $29,530
* Seven-person family, up to $33,270
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
In the broader six-county Chattanooga metropolitan area, the poverty rate jumped from 13 percent in 2008 to 17.7 percent in 2009.
"Too many people can't find work and there just aren't enough places to help out the poor," said Jeffrey Turner, a 51-year-old preacher who waited Tuesday at Metropolitan Ministries for his monthly food voucher.
According to census estimates, the poverty rate exceeded the national average in all three of the major counties in and around Chattanooga. The share of persons living in households with incomes below the federal poverty level also grew faster than the U.S. average in Hamilton, Bradley and Whitfield counties.
Economists blame the growth in poverty on both a long-term trend toward greater income inequality and the recent effects of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
"There has been serious downward pressure for decades on jobs and wages for low-skilled workers who are being squeezed by competition from machines, technology and their counterparts in other parts of the world," University of Tennessee economist Matt Murray said. "The recession aggravated that trend by decimating much of the manufacturing and construction industries and weakening other parts of the economy."
The economic slump not only has pushed poverty higher, it has also cut the inflation-adjusted wages for the average worker, according to census data. In the Chattanooga metropolitan area, the median earnings of workers edged up by a mere $83 for all of 2009 to $25,774.
But median annual pay was still an average of $391 less last year than the $26,365 earned by the average Chattanooga area worker in 2006, according to government estimates.
Adjusted for inflation, median earnings for Chattanoogans last year were down 8.1 percent from the level of 2006. Median earnings in Chattanooga last year also were $2,591, or 9.2 percent, below the U.S. average, according to census figures.
"Chattanooga is doing better economically than many metro areas, but there is still a significant number of people living in poverty and many are working full-time in jobs that simply don't pay enough to lift them out of poverty," said David Eichenthal, president of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies in Chattanooga.
Because poverty levels are the same nationwide, some of Chattanooga's poor may fare better than those living in cities with more expensive costs of living.
But many of those still working in Chattanooga say they are struggling to pay their bills.
"Utilities are going up and my pay is going down," said Linda Rose, a 46-year-old waitress who lives in Rossville and works in Fort Oglethorpe. "People aren't eating out as much or tipping as much these days. I made more 20 years ago than I do now."
The drop in income has swelled the number of Tennesseans getting food stamps. Last month, a record 1.26 million Tennesseans received food stamps, up nearly 10 percent from August 2009 and more than 43 percent higher than the food stamp rolls three years ago, according to the Tennessee Department of Human Services.
The 211 "Call for Help" program administered by the United Way of Greater Chattanooga has received 34,800 requests for assistance already this year, officials said.
Although the number is down slightly from the 2009 peak, program director John Hayes said the agency handles about as many calls each day as its four-operator staff can handle.
"We're at capacity in terms of the number of calls we can take," he said. "We had been seeing a 15 to 20 percent increase each year in our call volume prior to this year. Our agents are answering 30 to 40 calls an hour."
Hayes said 211 is usually able to provide some help to those who request assistance.
"But it's harder to find the resources today," he said.
At Metropolitan Ministries, the number of persons the agency can help has been cut from 40 to 30 a day due to budget constraints.
"The need is overwhelming, but unfortunately we don't have the resources to serve as many people," said Rebecca Whelchel, executive director for Metropolitan Ministries, an organization of Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or (615)-757-6340.
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