On a warm September day, Devaughn Wilson stood patiently in line outside the Emmanuel Dining Room South, a New Castle kitchen that provides free lunches for the homeless, the impoverished, and anyone else who can’t provide for themselves.
Wilson has been eating most of his meals at the kitchen and other places like it, since losing his job as a driver with a Wilmington trucking company in late June.
The company said it had lost orders and needed to stop running one of its trucks, so Wilson, 36, was suddenly out of work after three years with the firm.
At a stroke, his $600-a-week salary was reduced to zero, and his savings, a meager $1,100, quickly dwindled to practically nothing as he tried to pay for food and rent for himself, his girlfriend, and his four sons, ages two months to 17 years.
Wilson, with a high school education and a Class A truck-driving license, now picks up occasional work at the Port of Wilmington but otherwise has no income, and by the last week in September had not yet qualified for food stamps.
Being out of work also hurt his relationship with his girlfriend and caused so much tension that Wilson moved out of their apartment. “When I stopped working, we just couldn’t get along,” he said.
So he’s staying with friends, sleeping on a sofa in what he says is an apartment infested with mice and cockroaches. He has no car, and rides his bike or takes the bus to the kitchen or the library when he can afford it.
He’s looking for work – he visits the local library every day to check CareerBuilder.com for job postings – and admits he would have a better chance of finding a job if he was prepared to take a truck-driving job that would take him away from home for several weeks at a time.
But he wants to continue to see his kids three times a week, and is holding out for a local job that would allow him to stay nearby, although he says the time is fast approaching when he will just take whatever he can get.
“It’s almost time to hit the road,” he said.
So for now, Wilson has joined the growing ranks of the impoverished – those whose annual income officially falls below the federal poverty line of $22,350 for a family of four and $10,890 for a single person.
Nationally, the U.S. Census bureau reported in mid-September that the poverty rate rose to 15.1 percent in 2010, pushing an additional 2.6 million people into poverty. 46.2 million people are now below the poverty line, highest number since the Bureau began calculating the data in 1959.
The trend is mirrored in Delaware where 103,427 people, or 11.8 percent of the population, were declared impoverished last year. That’s up from 10.8 percent in 2009 and 10.4 percent in 2008.
The rates are almost twice as high for Delawareans who are black (20.5 percent); Hispanic (21.7 percent); without a high school diploma (22.1 percent), or unemployed (21.1 percent).
The poverty rate jumps to 30.4 percent for households headed by a woman, with no husband present and related children under 18 years old, up from 28.8 percent in 2009.
Across the state, rates range from 11.2 percent and 11.3 percent in Kent and New Castle Counties, respectively, to 13.8 percent in Sussex County.
But in the city of Wilmington, the rate rises dramatically to 27.6 percent, or more than 18,653 people, with even higher rates among blacks, Hispanics, and those without a high school diploma, according to the Census Bureau data.
“It’s grim,” said Elaine Archangelo, director of the Division of Social Services within the state’s Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS). “We have not seen this kind of thing before.”
Among a flood of state data showing the effects of rising poverty in Delaware, the number of people receiving food stamps has almost doubled from a monthly average of some 72,000 in 2008 to 130,000 so far this year, Archangelo said. In September, 143,000 Delawareans qualified for food stamps, up from about 125,000 a year earlier.
In September alone, the cost of food stamps, shared by state and federal governments, was $18.4 million, or an average of $128.73 a month for every client, according to Archangelo.
Private food banks, too, are seeing a sharp rise in demand for food. The Food Bank of Delaware, which supplies food to about 470 local agencies which then distribute it to the poor, fed about 240,000 people when its last survey was done a year ago, but that number has undoubtedly risen since, said president and CEO Patricia Beebe.
“Demand has been rising for the last five years,” she said. “The last few months have been incredible.”
To meet the higher demand, the Food Bank has been distributing more food to recipients directly from the back of its trucks in low-income neighborhoods, rather than relying on slower and more costly methods, such as local churches, to hand it out.
It has opened up food pantries in four schools and has started a backpack program to provide food for children who are at risk of going hungry on weekends when they can’t get food from free and reduced lunch programs at their schools.
Lately, its job has been made harder by a sharp decline in food donations from businesses that are increasingly selling food to secondary markets such as dollar stores, or sending it overseas, rather than giving it to food banks.
Donations plunged to some 5 million pounds from 8 million pounds during the fiscal year that ended June 30, said Beebe. She’s trying to make up the shortfall by fundraising – she estimates the agency will need at least $250,000 a year to maintain services at its current level – and by taking food from a federal program that buys surplus production from farmers who can’t sell it on the open market.
Beebe attributes the surge in demand to rising unemployment, particularly as a result of the closure of Delaware’s car manufacturing plants, and the downsizing of the banking industry.
Delaware’s car plants and refineries used to provide incomes of $50-$70,000 for people with a high school education but those jobs aren’t coming back, said Archangelo of the DHSS.
“They are not going to be able to get another job like that,” she said.
The newly poor are also increasingly qualifying for Medicaid. In August this year, almost 203,000 people qualified for medical coverage under the program, 16,000 more than last August, and representing a 39 percent rise since 2007, said Dave Michalik, chief of policy and planning for the state Division of Medicaid and Medical Assistance.
There’s also been an increase in the number of children who qualify for medical insurance under the state’s CHIP program, which helps those who don’t qualify for Medicaid but whose families’ income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
The faltering economy has pushed even some highly qualified people into poverty, and even forced them to seek food handouts.
Among them is DeBorah Gilbert White, a PhD in social psychology who lost her $63,000-a-year job with a Kentucky church in May 2010 and has been underemployed since.
White, 54, teaches online courses at the University of Phoenix. She makes only $1,200 for a nine-week class, income that can’t begin to match her monthly expenses, but still prevents her from qualifying for food stamps or other jobless benefits. At under 55, she’s too young for Medicare or other senior assistance.
With no savings and around $100,000 in student loans hanging over her, White has been unable to pay her rent for the last three months and is facing imminent eviction from her $599-a-month apartment in Wilmington. She says she has applied for 30-40 jobs in the last 15 months.
“I’m trying to borrow money from friends and family but even some of them are close to a similar situation with their income,” she said.
White, a divorcee with two grown children living in Ohio and Virginia, says she doesn’t have a social life because she can’t afford to go out, and long ago gave up cable TV. She eats mostly from food pantries.
While she continues to be optimistic that things will work out, she’s perplexed that even a highly qualified person seems unable to find work in the current economy.
“I have a degree that should open doors for me,” she said. “It hasn’t yet.”
Back at the Emmanuel Dining Room, Sister Bernadette McGoldrick, a Franciscan sister who runs the center for the Ministry of Caring, said it served 2,865 meals in August, the highest monthly total that she was aware of. She attributed the increase to rising unemployment, and said people are “desperate” to find work.
Everyone who shows up gets a meal, with no questions asked, she said. “If they have the heart to stand in that line, they deserve to get a dinner.”