More Need, Less Help
COLUMBIA, S.C., March 12, 2009, The Washington Post — The scenes here are now familiar in places deeply bruised by the recession: The Salvation Army gets so many calls from people desperate for help with overdue utility bills that, one morning, its phone system crashed. The Family Service Center of South Carolina is deluged with clients seeking free counseling for delinquent mortgages. And the shelves at the Life Force food pantry run out of rice, canned stew meat and black-eyed peas in less than an hour.
Yet in few places is the nonprofit sphere being tested as profoundly as in this Southern city -- the capital of a state where, figures released yesterday show, the unemployment rate is now the second worst in the nation and conservative political leaders believe that charities, and not the government, should bear primary responsibility for people in need.
Gov. Mark Sanford (R) eschews the prevailing view in Washington that government money should be used as a salve to the economy and to people who have lost jobs. "At some level, government steps in to fill the void," Sanford said in an interview, "but we ought to be the lender of last resort, not the first."
Sanford and the Republican-led General Assembly have cut the state's budget three times since last summer by a total of $871 million, or 13 percent -- among the deepest reductions in the nation.
The cuts have limited state agencies' ability to help the growing numbers of people in need. The state's Medicaid program, for instance, is reducing mental health counseling, cancer screening and dental coverage.
The reductions are constricting the private sector's capacity, too. The Department of Social Services has pared its contracts to nonprofit groups by an average of 10 percent, reducing funding for emergency shelters and employment training programs.
While other states have looked to Washington for assistance, Sanford has been a foremost critic of the federal economic stimulus package. Yesterday, he challenged the law's intent, announcing that he will ask the White House for a waiver to use $700 million -- the part of South Carolina's share of the money over which he has direct control -- to lower the state's debt, instead of putting it toward new spending.
Asked whose mission it is to help the widening pool of people in financial pain, the governor said that such aid "has to be leveraged through church, civic and private hands. . . . If you take care of the need in government circles, you dissipate the ability of civil society to take care of that need."
Timothy Ervolina, president of the United Way Association of South Carolina, worries that the web of philanthropic and nonprofit groups may not be able to fulfill the governor's expectations. Ervolina has watched fundraising fade at United Ways across the state, even as calls pour in to their crisis hotlines.
"Policymakers have said, 'You guys are just going to have to step up to the plate.' I hear that," he said. "But when I step up to the plate and no ball even is coming at you, it's pretty hard to make a hit."
He added: "We are increasingly taking on the role of a community grief counselor. Something has got to give, and that something is going to be people's lives."
As in Washington, residents of Columbia have viewed their city as recession-proof -- aside from the state government, it is home to the main campus of the University of South Carolina; big banks, insurance companies and hospitals; and Fort Jackson, the Army's largest basic-training site. So they have been stunned as Columbia's unemployment has rocketed up -- 11.7 percent in November, 13.1 percent in December, 14.1 percent in January.
Amid the job losses, lives are coming unglued. Sheila Turman turned to Columbia's largest food bank, Harvest Hope, a few weeks ago -- the first time in her 52 years she had ever asked a nonprofit for help.
"I was hungry," she said. "You don't know how I wanted a glass of milk."
Turman had worked steadily since she was 15, until she was laid off from her job as a leasing agent at her apartment complex before Christmas. Two weeks after she missed her February rent payment, an eviction notice came. She borrowed a neighbor's car to go to the Department of Social Services to try to get food stamps. But after waiting more than 2 1/2 hours, she had to leave to return the car.
"That wasn't even to apply," she said. "That was to get an appointment to apply."
At Harvest Hope, she was given bread, milk, lettuce, six eggs, sugar and a big box of hot dogs. Staff member Cheryl Davis also handed her a list of nonprofit groups to call for more emergency assistance.
"I called every one," Turman said. One group couldn't help because it serves the working poor and she doesn't have a job. An organization that helps pay utility bills said it was out of money.
She tried the Salvation Army. Overwhelmed by requests, the charity now sets just one day a month for people to schedule appointments. Turman was told to call back on the designated day. They weren't giving out appointments at the moment.
Unlike in Rust Belt communities, where economic erosion is an old story, or in towns where a dominant employer has shut down, the loss of jobs here in Columbia and across South Carolina is diffuse, a sagging of a broad swath of the local economy. According to the state's Employment Security Commission, the nearly 43,000 jobs that vanished from South Carolina in January included almost 12,000 in retail, and about 6,000 each in manufacturing, hospitality, and professions and business.
For more than a year, Sanford has had a public spat with the commission. The governor contends that unemployment is not as severe as the official statistics show. He says the commission has refused to examine questions he has raised: the impact on the figures, for instance, of retirees who work part-time. "Do you guys," he said rhetorically of the commission, "have any clue of what your numbers are?"
Still, Sanford said that, in his state, "there absolutely are people in pain, and absolutely empathy with those people." To help them, he said, "there ought to be a social compact" that is defined "more broadly than simply government."
It is that view that guided his decision to ask the White House to use $700 million of the state's federal stimulus money to retire debt rather than on fortifying social programs or on other state spending -- and, if the administration refuses, to reject the money altogether. "We believe it is . . . financially reckless," he said in announcing his decision, "to borrow from future generations to attempt to address today's economic problems."
Not all state legislators like what South Carolina is doing. "Nonprofits have felt the hammer, because we do not have the money to give them," said Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D), a social worker by profession who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee. "The private sector can't do it. In a lot of cases they are suffering as well."
The current climate for charity can be glimpsed in the largest annual fundraiser of the Central Carolina Community Foundation, its International Festival of Wines and Food. Last year, attendees bought all but one of about 350 bottles of donated wine, commanding prices as high as $400. This time, 200 bottles were donated, and more than two dozen were left at the end of the night.
Overall, gifts to the foundation, a main source of grants to local nonprofits, dropped by nearly $2.5 million in the second half of 2008.
By late February, the largest anchor of philanthropy in town, the United Way of the Midlands, was more than $1 million short of its $12.2 million goal for the annual campaign that is ending soon. In this fundraising environment, said Anita Floyd, a United Way vice president, the cuts the governor and the legislature have made are "really frightening. . . . There is no way for the private side to come in and close that gap."
All across town, direct donations are drying up. South Carolina Legal Services, a statewide network that gives free legal help, in July received the biggest grant handed out by the South Carolina Bar Foundation but in January was asked to return 15 percent of it.
At the Salvation Army, where donations have also dropped, office receptionist Debbie Cresswell has started making calls every Monday morning to other local nonprofits to find out which ones have money and appointments available.
"I really hate telling people, no, we can't assist them," Cresswell said. "It hurts. It hurts not only the person who needs the help, but it hurts the person who has to tell them, 'No, we don't have the funding to help you.' "
The strains on the new poor, as well as the conservatism of the political culture within the state government, are well known to one of South Carolina's most influential voices in Washington, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D), the third-ranking member of the House. Anticipating that Sanford would oppose stimulus money, Clyburn did an end-run around the governor: He worked into the stimulus package a provision that allows a state legislature to accept the federal money if a governor rejects it.
Yesterday, Clyburn lashed out at Sanford, saying his effort to get a waiver is "100 percent political posturing."
While the politics play out, the surge in need is visible in the line that snakes across the parking lot at Harvest Hope, the food bank that supplies 400 nonprofits and runs its own emergency pantry.
Increasingly, the people in line are, like Brian Clarke, coming for the first time. Clarke, 47, was the foreman for a framing and roofing company for six years, making $18 an hour, until the company laid him off in December.
"It blew me out of the water," he said, sitting across a desk from Cheryl Davis, who helps people find assistance. He tries now to pick up day-laborer jobs. Most days, there is no work to get. His electricity, he told Davis, was to be shut off the next day. He had just sent away his girlfriend so she would not be in the dark.
"I have the tools. I have the equipment. Everything. I've never had to ask for anything ever, ever, ever," Clarke said, his eyes filling with tears. "I called God's Helping Hand. Brookland Baptist Church. Everywhere I called, they were out of help."
Davis grasped Clarke's hand, weeping, too. He was still crying as he walked off down the hall to get a shopping cart filled with food.
Davis wiped her eyes. She gets to work at 7:30 a.m. and sees 25 to 50 clients a day. These days, she said, she cries with most of them.
A few days later, she still was thinking about Sheila Turman, across town with her eviction notice and no way to pay her rent. Davis called Turman and told her to come back to Harvest Hope.
When Turman borrowed a car again, Davis handed her a cashier's check for $1,150, enough for her rent and penalties through April 1. The money didn't come from the state or a charity. It came from Davis's own bank account.