Despite COVID aid, many Vermonters are still struggling to afford basic necessities
According to census data, COVID-19 stimulus payments moved nearly 12 million people out of poverty in the U.S. Unemployment insurance prevented millions more from falling into poverty in the first place.
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And in Vermont right now, jobs are plentiful and starting wages are up.
But advocates say many people in Vermont are still struggling.
West Rutland resident Michele Bailey is one of them. On a recent Wednesday, she pushed a shopping cart through the food pantry at BROC Community Action, which serves Rutland and Bennington counties.
BROC is one of five community action agencies in the state that serve low-income Vermonters. The lobby in Rutland was busy with people coming and going.
Bailey was there to pick up her family’s monthly allotment of free groceries, and she looked tired but relieved after filling her cart.
“We’re fortunate enough to be homeowners,” she explained. “But now my roof is leaking, and I can’t afford to fix that. My refrigerator broke down the other day, and I can’t afford to replace my refrigerator. My car is on its last leg.”
Bailey said she used work as a production artist for the Vermont Country Store and loved it.
“It was a great career,” she said. But she got a brain tumor, and she explained that it made her unsteady, so she can’t work anymore.
Now, divorced and on permanent disability, she’s raising three kids on a fixed income, and it’s not keeping up.
“During COVID, I had to make sure each of my children had cell phones so that they could do their schoolwork,” she said. “So, we ended up with a $300 cell phone bill. And then you get your fuel; everything’s going up except for your paycheck, you know?”
She leaned onto her grocery cart and sighed.
“Sometimes we have to decide between gas in the car or food in the belly," she said. "That’s our reality now.”
Bailey's face brightened when she noticed the food pantry had Frosted Flakes. Her family would enjoy that cereal she said, putting a box into her cart.
She worries her family will lose their West Rutland home, and says she knows many others in the same boat.
“I went to go see a friend of mine the other day, and I pulled in, and there were no trespassing signs," Bailey said. "She was evicted, I have no idea where she is … I’m really worried about her.”
Tens of millions of dollars in COVID relief aid has come into Vermont to help with rent, mortgage payments, food and utility bills.
BROC’s phone lines were buzzing with people calling, and there was a steady stream of people stopping by to ask about how to get it.
Tom Donahue, BROC’s executive director, said they’ve been working hard to connect people to the money. But many still miss out for a variety of reasons.
“A lot of people can’t access the programs ‘cause they’re online,” he said. “A lot of them may not have high-speed internet and basically, they may not have the savvy to complete these oftentimes complicated applications, where there’s scanning and printing.”
Rita Markley heads up COTS, a nonprofit that fights homelessness in Chittenden County. On the heels of COVID, she believes Vermont’s tight housing market is one of the biggest barriers for people trying to recover financially.
“Rents are skyrocketing,” Markley said. “And there's like, less than a 1% vacancy rate, so you know, a two-bedroom apartment becomes available, 70 people will show up to see that apartment. And often it's $100 or $200 a month higher than it was just a year ago.”
After housing, August Kvan with Northeast Kingdom Community Action points to affordable transportation as another reason many Vermonters are struggling, especially those in rural parts of the state.
She said in areas with limited-to-no mass transit, if you don’t have a reliable car, getting to and from work can be next-to-impossible. Carpooling is less of an option during a pandemic, and even with a car, she said gas prices are up, so it’s more costly.
You might think: Jobs are plentiful, and wages are up, so that’s probably helping. But for families that have been receiving child care and housing assistance, Kvam said income from a full-time job can sometimes disqualify them from continuing to get those benefits.
So, if the only job you can get is entry-level, you might not be able to afford to work.
“Sometimes we have to decide between gas in the car or food in the belly. That’s our reality now.”Michele Bailey, West Rutland resident
Rita Markley sees this all the time, especially with people in the service sector who don’t have a set schedule.
“So… if your hours are switched from Monday through Friday, and suddenly you have to take weekend shifts, and you don't have child care coverage, and suddenly, you have to pay for options that you don't have," she said. "Or you have to say no to those shifts. It's really difficult.”
It leaves people with no margin, Markley said. So when a car breaks, a roof leaks, or a medical emergency comes up, families are left with untenable choices.
On top of all that, with COVID cases in Vermont climbing, many people are still afraid to work.
Markley added: “My biggest fear is a year and a half from now, the people who got these very high rent increases are going to be the next wave of homeless and there won't be COVID resources to absorb that impact.”
Back in Rutland at BROC Community Action, Tom Donahue said one of the few silver linings of the last year and a half is that the pandemic has shined a light on poverty and homelessness like never before.
“And that’s critical,” Donahue said. “In Rutland County for example, our folks tend to keep to themselves and they’re not visible. They’re not camping out in downtown like in Burlington, for instance, so it’s out of sight, out of mind, and then the problem isn’t addressed. And now it is being addressed.”
How successfully remains to be seen. In the meantime, BROC and other agencies like it are gearing up to help even more Vermonters next year.