Hancock purses her lips, already knowing what will come next. She punches numbers into a calculator and then begins the same conversation she will have 14 more times on this day alone.
“I’m really sorry,” she says. “All we can afford to give right now is $35.”
This is how Hancock spends her days: caught in a constant tug-of-war between competing economic disasters. She works for an emergency assistance program in a town where one-third of people live in poverty and a record number rely on food stamps. While the talk in Washington and on Wall Street is about signs of economic recovery, people here in southwest Virginia come to Hancock’s office seeking the basics for survival: Food. Shelter. Work. Formula for a newborn. Medication for a failing heart.
At a time of such high demand, poverty-assistance programs across the country are facing a financial crisis of their own. Hancock’s organization, which totals four employees in a rundown, two-story house, is almost out of money. Local businesses that once donated thousands each month have yet to donate a single dollar this year. As the national deficit continues to skyrocket, federal and state governments are proposing the most severe budget cuts to social service programs in decades, threatening to reduce spending by 50 percent or more.
Now Hancock, a 43-year-old single woman with no savings account, worries about much more than how much money is left to give. She also worries about losing her own job.
But she is still employed on this day, at least, and now the young mother in her office begins to plead.
“Ma’am, only $35?” she says. “That’s not gonna make a dent. How can we survive with no heat, no stove, no washing machine, no microwave?”
“Okay, honey. Okay,” Hancock says. “Let’s take a look and see what we can do.”
She logs onto her computer, which contains a database of all 2,799 people who have come into this office for help in the last six months. The emergency assistance program has existed in Pulaski for almost 50 years, but only recently has the caseload started to grow by a few hundred people each month.
“I have a few standard questions that I have to ask for our records,” Hancock tells the young mother. “Is your income still zero?”
“Still getting food stamps?”
“Still providing for all three people in the house?”