With Winter on the Way, Economic Woes Threaten Poor, Middle Class

Belmont, Mass. – Growing food pantry lines, empty heating oil tanks and bare cupboards are on the rise as economic woes strain Massachusetts’s poor and middle class, a panel of public officials and local advocates for basic services said Monday.

These images, combined with a stingier climate for charitable giving, underscore growing worries about the ability of mainstream Massachusetts families to scrape by this winter, as foreclosures mount and the economy continues to gyrate.

The culmination of varied economic challenges has put increasing pressure on agencies that provide heating assistance, homeless shelter and food assistance.

Citizens Energy CEO and former U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy II, a member of the panel convened by the Boston Foundation, said the worsening crisis has highlighted a disconnect between political leadership and the genuine struggles of low-income families.

“It is so different than the experience that so much of the state, the people who are involved in making policy and all the rest of it, has,” Kennedy said. “What they don’t necessarily see is the plight and the reality of what poor people are facing.”

Kennedy told reporters that while people are “really, really suffering,” Massachusetts is “making cutbacks in all sorts of human service programs.”

“The difficulty is that this leaves the poor without a safety net,” he said, adding that major oil companies making “mind-boggling” profits were also disconnected from low-income families who need heating assistance.

Attorney General Martha Coakley told the News Service that the day-to-day responsibilities of public servants often prevent them from seeing the bigger economic picture.

“Some of it is we all get stuck in what our mandate is in our day to day jobs,” she said. In the meantime we have the worst economic crisis in a while. So although we’re on track for people that we’ve always served, a percentage of the low income and homeless folks, we see those numbers greatly expanded in populations we never expected before. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, they’re invisible to us.”

During the panel discussion, Kennedy said corporate sponsors he once partnered with to provide heating assistance are dwindling. His assessment drew nods from, among others, Red Cross of Massachusetts Bay CEO Deborah Jackson and Greater Boston Food Bank COO Carol Tienken, who said they had seen more and more families show up at food banks and fewer charitable donations.

“Normally in this country when major disasters occur … dollars begin to pour into the Red Cross,” said Jackson, referring to Hurricane Ike, which ravaged Houston in September. “It did not happen this year.”

Advocates for the homeless described rising demand for shelter and an increasingly fine line between struggling working class families and those living on the street.

“We found out that 40 percent of homeless people in Massachusetts are working,” said Radio Boston co-host David Boeri, the panel’s moderator. “It’s very touching when you realize just what it is that separates people from having a home and not.”

Boeri frequently called on the audience – a veritable who’s who of non-profit heads and representatives of government agencies – to supplement the panel’s discussion or to provide specific anecdotes about the upcoming challenge. Advocates for the homeless, low-income women, the elderly and children were among those who described increasing demands on their services and a dearth of resources. Organizations such as Rosie’s Place, Cradles to Crayons and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay were on hand.

Members of the Patrick administration’s energy and health secretariats attended and discussed their efforts to help families get through the winter.

Panelist Bill White, assistant secretary of federal affairs for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said federal heating assistance combined with state help would provide up to 10 weeks of heating assistance for the average low-income family this winter.

“It’s not the silver bullet, he said. “Our concern was that people may be freezing in their homes. That still may be the case.”

White said oil companies should commit to delivering less than a full tank of oil when that’s all consumers can afford. He suggested an oil consumer’s bill of rights as one potential solution.

The Boston Foundation announced that it would provide a slew of grants to non-profit and volunteer organizations, including $100,000 to Citizens Energy Corporation for direct oil assistance, $50,000 to the city of Boston for heat assistance for the elderly and children, $10,000 for the United Way of Massachusetts Bay for families on the verge of losing their homes, $60,000 for the National Consumer Law Center help cover utility bills for people in arrears, $50,000 for Boston community centers to educate residents about food pantries and food stamps, $60,000 for the Red Cross of Massachusetts Bay for food stamp utilization, and $75,000 for the Greater Boston Food Bank to support capacity building.

Boston Foundation President Paul Grogan grew visibly outraged at the dismal assessment of the economy offered by panelists.

“I don’t think we can tolerate anything less than the kind of mobilization that’s required to stave off the suffering and misery that is potentially going to be there this winter,” he said.

Grogan lambasted the federal government for funding wars in Iraq and a bailout package for financial institutions rather than health care for all and pre-school for low-income Americans.

“[They say] we can afford it, we can’t do it,” he said, adding emphatically, “Bulls—. Bulls—. I think we need to redefine what it means to be an American this season.”