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They made ends meet before coronavirus. Now they’re the ‘new poor.’

The number of Florida households living paycheck-to-paycheck was already soaring before the crisis. Nonprofits are trying to keep up.

Mandy Bayarkhuu wants to make sure she’s spending every day usefully.

She looks for work, then looks for help.

Bayarkhuu, 35, lost her job as a product designer in February. She was sending out resumes when the pandemic hit.

Now, as she and her husband fall back on his income driving for Uber, they are struggling to both pay the rent and navigate a safety net system that Bayarkhuu has concluded "is not set up for people like us.”

The Tampa family is among millions of Americans who have been thrust into financial jeopardy by the coronavirus crisis and are getting crash course in how to find help.

Rev. Watson Haynes, president of the Pinellas County Urban League, has name for them — “the new poor” — and he’s worried they’re getting little assistance despite their dire circumstances.

“Many of these are people who have never experienced not being able to pay rent or their bills,” Haynes said. “They don’t know if they’re ever going back to work or when.”

The Pinellas County Urban League has set up a “Grace and Mercy” fund to help people forced into financial jeopardy by the pandemic. But president and CEO Rev. Watson Haynes fears it’s only scratching the surface.
The Pinellas County Urban League has set up a “Grace and Mercy” fund to help people forced into financial jeopardy by the pandemic. But president and CEO Rev. Watson Haynes fears it’s only scratching the surface. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

He said he knew it was real when he saw the long car line snaking around the food pantry outside Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg. Then came the calls to the Urban League, a nonprofit helping Pinellas residents with housing, workforce training, utility bills and other assistance.

In a normal week before the pandemic, the organization fielded about 182 calls a week for assistance. Now they’re getting close to 400, mostly from families looking to keep the lights on. The Urban League also has set up a “Grace and Mercy” fund to help, but Haynes fears it’s only scratching the surface.

Bayarkhuu, her husband and their two children qualified for food stamps, but the amount was reduced to $239 a month because their income from Uber was considered too high. They were turned down for help with utility bills. And they failed to qualify for a short-term grant from Modest Needs, a nonprofit that helps working families living just above the poverty line.

Each day brings a series of web searches directing Bayarkhuu to call 211, the Tampa Bay Cares helpline that works to connect people to social services. That leads to more programs for which the family doesn’t qualify. Bayarkhuu estimates she’s applied for 100 jobs in the meantime.

The family lived frugally before the pandemic and had savings for a couple months, but lately Bayarkhuu worries how they will eat next month.

“I consider myself pretty internet savvy, and I search a lot of things and find a lot of things, but I can’t find anything,” she said. “We don’t know how to use the system or navigate it."

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Related: RELATED: 24 million more file jobless claims driving total of lost jobs to 38 million

Describing this level of hardship as “new” may not be the best term, said Jessica Muroff, CEO of United Way Suncoast. Many of those in need were on the edge of poverty before the pandemic.

An annual United Way report refers to them as “asset limited, income constrained, employed families,” a category known by the acronym ALICE. Their incomes are well above official poverty levels but often not enough to accumulate savings, set aside emergency funds or pay all the bills.

In Hillsborough County, a family of four needs $74,268 a year to pay for housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, a smart phone plan and taxes, according to the United Way’s ALICE report for 2020.

That’s more than the $25,100 that the federal government deems as poverty level for a family of four. But it represents a family living paycheck-to-paycheck, with nothing extra, the report says.

“They often work as cashiers, nursing assistants, office clerks, servers, laborers and security guards,” it says. And their numbers are growing — from about 1.5 million Florida households in 2007 to 2.6 million in 2018.

They make up 33 percent of Florida’s households, up from 22 percent in 2007, according to the report. The poverty rate, meanwhile, stayed around 13 percent of households in the state.

“The complications and issues and needs were already great,” Muroff said. “Then a pandemic comes and it’s just devastating.” She said younger, less educated workers have been affected most severely.

Many people will fall into a category that social scientists call the “transitory poor,” those with a temporary loss of income caused by a sudden trauma, said James Cavendish, chairman of the sociology department at the University of South Florida who teaches courses on inequality,

But for those who were already in what was known as the working poor, conditions may get worse.

“This might exacerbate inequalities,” Cavendish said. “The jobs of people whose jobs can only be performed physically are anyway on the lower end of the income scale. ... We probably haven’t seen so many people fall below the poverty lines since the Great Depression.”

Like the Urban League, nonprofits across the Tampa Bay area are being flooded with people who have never sought help before, said Muroff.

The United Way, she said, has allocated $1.2 million to 57 nonprofits working to provide food, childcare and digital resources. Together they serve about 900,000 people.

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Sarah Combs, director of the University Area Community Development Corps, calls this the calm before the storm.

The University area’s median household income is $28,142 compared to $56,137 for Hillsborough County as a whole, according to 2018 Census data. More than 37 percent of people in the area lived in poverty compared to the 14.7 county rate. And 75 percent have incomes that fall under the ALICE threshold.

“In a low-income community and community of color you keep thinking, how can a community like this come out of it?” Combs said. “The wave is coming for us. People are going to get back to their lives, but this community won’t.”

Earlier this month, her group gave away more than 40 beds donated by AdventHealth, which had purchased them anticipating an overflow in its hospitals from the coronavirus outbreak.

“People don’t realize what a big deal this is to some families,” Combs said. “There were kids sleeping on the floor.”

The University Area CDC has been working with families in the area for more than 20 years.

Getting people the right help requires taking the time to know them and understand how they fell on hard times, said Susan Greenbaum, an anthropologist who studies racism and poverty and author of Blaming the Poor: The Long Shadow of the Moynihan Report on Cruel Images about Poverty.

“One of the things that happened during the Great Depression was the rethinking of what it means to be poor because so many people suddenly were, and the same thing is happening now,” Greenbaum said. “People who were doing fine until the system fell apart, it’s really not their fault. And it’s not the fault of most people in poverty.”

Greenbaum, who worked in Sulphur Springs, Ybor City, and East and West Tampa, said American society is built in a way that often allows individuals to live without understanding poverty.

“The stereotype about poverty is one of the worst because liberals and conservatives both buy into it,” she said. “We live in neighborhood bubbles. We have a very distorted perception of how other people live and what their problems are. ... Those bubbles are getting burst.”

Some nonprofits with good intentions can be part of the problem, she said, recalling a workshop in a low-income neighborhood that centered around making kale smoothies.

“The assumption was that people aren’t eating right,” she said. “But are you kidding me, who would eat that? It tastes horrible. It’s very patronizing. People don’t take the time or trouble to get to know the people involved.”

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Dawn Schulman quickly realized how vast the crisis is. She’s the executive director of OASIS, a nonprofit that provides clothing and shoes for low-income students in Hillsborough County.

"Our families are in need like never before,” she said. “They don’t know what resources are out there because they’ve never had to use them before.”

The group has changed the way it helps, operating through school social workers to protect the anonymity of newly poor families who might hesitate to ask for help or not know where to turn. OASIS also began distributing $50 gift cards for groceries and gas, and hygiene kits at school food distribution sites.

Schulman said one mother thanked her, saying she had been stretching her kids’ shampoo with water and asking them not to rinse their toothbrushes so they’d have toothpaste to use the next day.

“It’s going to take a long time to recover," Schulman said.

Other organizations also are pivoting to meet the moment.

St. Petersburg College president Tonjua Williams, who serves on the Urban League’s board, said education will be vital in helping people re-gain economic mobility.

"The hardest thing to see is people lose hope," said Tonjua Williams, president of St. Petersburg College, where efforts are under way to help retrain workers left jobless by the pandemic.
"The hardest thing to see is people lose hope," said Tonjua Williams, president of St. Petersburg College, where efforts are under way to help retrain workers left jobless by the pandemic. [ St. Petersburg College ]

“This pandemic has changed life forever,” she said. “People have lost lives, people have lost homes, people have lost businesses. But the hardest thing to see is people lose hope.”

The college recently hosted virtual meetings with industry leaders to hear their thinking on how the workforce will change after the pandemic, Williams said. The idea is to create short-term training programs so the newly unemployed can get back to work.

"The challenge is we’re trying to train students for careers that have yet to be built,” Williams said.

Though the gig economy has often been linked with growing inequality, Williams said it has created opportunities. Jobs such as Instacart shoppers didn’t exist a decade ago.

“People are coming up with their own service sector jobs by the minute,” she said. “I think it’s going to be important that as higher education, we’re nimble and quick to respond to creativity and innovation.”

• • •

Bayarkhuu has been looking at her resume, wondering how to switch careers. She’s thought about going back to school, but that’s not realistic right now.

“Who has money to do that?” she said. “I can’t even pay my rent.”

She found a free computer programming course she hopes to start. But so far most of her time is spent trying to stabilize her family’s finances, which feels like a full-time job.

“If I was to say, ‘There’s help and there’s hope,’ that’s probably lying,” she said.

“I know it’s a long way for the system to get fixed to help people, but anybody could come into our situation. Our lives are kind of going to be like this for a while. The whole world needs to know what to do next.”