News & Politics

4 Desperate Ways the Hardest Hit Are Coping with Economic Crisis

People have to make difficult choices during tough economic times. Here are four frightening ways people are coping with the ongoing recession.

As the economy continues to tank in the wake of congressional budget showdowns and stock market crashes, stories of those hardest hit remain hidden from view. The unemployed and underemployed, the homeless and the hungry have all been relegated to the back pages of our local newspapers; that is, if they are reported on at all.

As America's economic disaster continues its destructive rampage throughout our communities, leaving behind record levels of unemployment, home foreclosures, mounting debt and unaffordable bills, how are those on the edge of the economy coping? 

1) Skipping Meals: Not Just for Adults Anymore

According to figures released by the USDA in 2009, 17.4 million American households (14.7 percent) are "food insecure,” which is the highest recorded rate since surveys were first conducted in 1995. As a result, 97 percent of adults in these households report cutting back or skipping meals to ensure there is enough for their kids to eat. Twenty-eight percent have even given up eating for an entire day.

Nadja Brickle, 22, a West Philadelphia mother of three, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that she frequently skips meals so that her kids can eat. "Most people don't know what it feels like to have your stomach completely empty and to make and smell food you won't be eating. And then, they're not satisfied 'cause it's not enough food for them. And you're still hungry,” said Brickle.

Nevertheless, 17.2 million American children face the threat of hunger, which is the highest number ever recorded since officials started keeping track in the ‘90s. That is one in four kids who don’t have enough to eat and are at risk of going hungry. According to emergency room doctors in cities around the country, this is leading to a dramatic spike in malnourishment in babies.

The Boston Globe recently reported on shocking levels of infant malnourishment in Massachusetts. Doctors at the Boston Medical Center (BMC) report seeing “more hungry and dangerously thin young children in the emergency room than at any time in more than a decade of surveying families.”  And Boston is not alone.  Pediatricians in other large cities, including Baltimore, Little Rock, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia, have also seen a rise in infant malnourishment since 2008.

Although Massachusetts has experienced a sharp growth in the number of families that rely on food stamps, BMC doctors told the Globe that “many families are unable to afford enough healthy food to feed their children,” indicating that government programs may be inadequate for families struggling to feed their kids. They also warn that “rising chronic hunger threatens to leave scores of infants and toddlers with lasting learning and developmental problems.” The Globe even likened child malnourishment and hunger among Boston’s poor to levels seen in the "developing world." 

Back in April, when President Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to cut $500 million from WIC, doctors Maureen Black and David Paige cautioned that this would “push the nation's fiscal concerns onto the shoulders of babies.” It turns out that their warnings were quite literal. 

2) Doubling Up and Overcrowding

One way people are coping with challenging economic circumstances is by combining households, which is commonly referred to as “doubling up” or overcrowding. Thanks to millions of foreclosures coupled with record unemployment, countless American families have been forced to move in with family, friends or strangers.  

While statistics on overcrowding are hard to come by, a study last year sponsored by the Research Institute for Housing America (RIHA) found there has been a five-fold increase in overcrowding since the start of the recession.  They define overcrowding as “more than one person per room.”

In 2009, Barbara Ehrenreich reported on this phenomenon: 

In Los Angeles, Prof. Peter Dreier, a housing policy expert at Occidental College, says that “people who’ve lost their jobs, or at least their second jobs, cope by doubling or tripling up in overcrowded apartments, or by paying 50 or 60 or even 70 percent of their incomes in rent.” Thelmy Perez, an organizer with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, is trying to help an elderly couple who could no longer afford the $600 a month rent on their two-bedroom apartment, so they took in six unrelated subtenants and are now facing eviction. According to a community organizer in my own city, Alexandria, Va., the standard apartment in a complex occupied largely by day laborers contains two bedrooms, each housing a family of up to five people, plus an additional person laying claim to the couch.

Although cities have been struggling with overcrowded homes for years, the economic disaster has stressed that number to the brink. While overcrowding may serve as a short-term fix, the long-term consequences can range from lack of privacy or adequate bathroom time, to safety hazards resulting in death.

For example, last year the Chicago Tribune reported that “seven people died in a Cicero fire that engulfed an overcrowded apartment with an illegally converted attic bedroom where five of the victims were found, including a 3-day-old baby. In 2007, a fire inside an illegally converted basement occupied by 10 people on Chicago's Southwest Side killed a 3-year-old boy and a 10-month-old boy.”

In June the New York Times reported that an estimated four million foreclosures are being processed or "waiting in the wings," leaving the potential for more overcrowding and doubling-up wide open. 

3) Postponing Retirement 'til Death?  

You know that trapped, resentful feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when 30 minutes before your workday is over, your boss pops in and asks you to stay an extra 20 minutes after five? Well, that is what the economy is demanding of soon-to-be retired workers, who have spent their entire adult lives working and waiting for the day they can finally relax and enjoy their golden years with dignity. 

As six million American seniors struggle to eat, the economic crisis has them postponing retirement to stay afloat. And for those already retired, it's back into the labor market they go. 

At least that is the conclusion reached from a 2009 study by Experience Works, which according to Reuters found that “the economic recession is forcing senior citizens out of retirement, leaving them fighting for jobs in a week labor market or risk homelessness.”

Based on the study’s findings, “many of the participants had no intention of working past their 60th birthday, but had to change plans after being laid off or following the death of a spouse. Over a third of the participants had retired. Ninety percent of respondents 76 years and older planned to continue working for the next five years.”

A more recent study by the Employee Retirement Benefit Institute found that the best way for Americans to fund retirement is to delay it. The research shows that “if Baby Boomers and Gen Xers delay their retirement past the age of 65, many of them still would not have adequate income to cover their basic retirement expenses and uninsured health care costs.”

But even if a worker delays retirement well into their 80s, they still risk of running out of money in retirement. Among the lowest income group, “90 percent would have to keep working through age 84 before having a 50-50 shot at fully funding retirement,” the institute found.  On the bright side, those who wait until their late 70s or early 80s to retire significantly improve their “chance of success for retirement adequacy.” 

With an average life expectancy of only 77.9 years, these trends point to an America where survival means working until you die.

4) Suicide Amidst Financial Hopelessness and Desperation

Ervin and Ana Lupoe, a Los Angelas couple, had five beautiful children: 8-year-old Brittney; 5-year-old twin girls Jaszmin and Jassely; and 2-year-old twin boys Benjamin and Christian.  But in January of 2009, the New York Times reported that 43-year-old Ervin Lupoe, suffering from a sharp rise in mortgage debt, “killed his wife and five children hours before shooting himself in the head.”

In April 2009, the Baltimore Sun reported that 34-year-old Christopher Wood killed his wife and three young children before turning the gun on himself in their rented home in Middletown, Maryland.  The police reportedly found Wood’s 5 and 4-year-old boys in their beds and his 2-year-old daughter lying next to her mother in the master bedroom.  Wood left behind six handwritten notes which detailed his struggle with depression and financial instability.  The family was apparently paying two mortgages on a house they owned in Florida, which was twice what the house was actually worth. 

This past May, the Washington Post reported on the murder-suicide of 64-year-old Larry E. Perry of Sterling, Virginia.  Perry called 911 and reported a shooting before walking outside and shooting himself.  His 61-year-old wife Mercedes “Kaye” Perry was already dead inside the house.  Loudoun County authorities believe financial hardship and his wife’s “serious health issues” inspired Perry’s homicidal behavior.  The Post described family, friends and neighbors as stunned at this “inexplicable and sudden act of violence” by a “devoted husband, father, and grandfather.”

Murder-suicides attributed, in part, to financial struggles have been piling up in news reports since the economic crisis began. In 2008, Nick Turse detailed how "violent reactions are bubbling up across the country to new economic realities."

While economic difficulties are not directly responsible for suicide attempts, they can certainly contribute. According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health, there is a direct link between the business cycle and suicide rates of young and middle-age Americans. Thus, the suicide rate, like the incidence of depression, rises when the economy falls.

This is consistent with a 2009 study which found that mass layoffs and long-term unemployment were associated with increased risk of suicide, particularly among individuals experiencing long bouts of unemployment.

Considering that Americans are facing the highest recorded rate of long-term unemployment since 1948 when the Labor Department began tracking it, we should all be alarmed. 

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that stressful life events such as losing a job, home or life-savings can push those who are most vulnerable over the edge. And the murder-suicide of one’s own family is the “ultimate desperate act” in America's economic abyss.