washingtonpost.com
Correction to This Article
A photo caption incorrectly identified a location used by the McKenna's Wagon soup kitchen as Fifth and K streets NW. The location is Fourth and L streets NW. A Nov. 22 The article transposed D.C. and Maryland numbers in describing increases in the number of people receiving food stamps. Participation in the program rose by almost 29 percent in Maryland and by 15 percent in the District from May 2008 to May 2009.
A great burden grows

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 22, 2009; G01

A year after the global economy teetered on the verge of collapse, a recession -- a lingering and unwelcome guest -- has settled in at dinner tables across the land.

And while plates are empty at some homes, the lines grow long at organizations like Martha's Table, a nonprofit in the District where a record number of people wait each day for a bit of something -- food or clothing or educational programs -- to see them through.

"It can be a swelling river with all the different tributaries feeding into it," said Lindsey Buss, president and chief executive of Martha's Table. "And the rain isn't stopping."

Across the region, demand for basic services has skyrocketed, fueled by people losing jobs in the bleak economy. For the nonprofits that provide many of those services, the economic crisis has taken a bitter toll as well; funding was down from most sources last year, with foundation endowments bludgeoned by the stock market, businesses losing money and local government budgets stretched.

After last year's financial crash, nonprofit, government and business leaders created the Eight Neighbors group, banding together to help the region's most vulnerable people. At the "Nonprofit 911" meeting Monday, they talked about weathering the toughest year in recent memory, and braced for the one ahead.

Alice Rivlin, an economist at the Brookings Institution and a former Federal Reserve governor, told community leaders that the downturn had worsened the socioeconomic divide in the city. There's low unemployment in wards 2 and 3, she said, but "in Ward 8 it's a Great Depression, it's 25 percent unemployment."

And 2010 looks to be even more difficult.

So when the pantry is picked clean, where do charities turn to keep up their mission? Well, back to the dinner table. As the traditional giving season begins -- Martha's Table, for example, gets three-quarters of its individual donations during the holidays -- nonprofits are wondering how much people writing checks will give this year. Or whether they'll give at all.

"Individual donors are the biggest question mark left for 2009," Buss said, "and everybody's anxious to see what's going to happen. We know people are hurting."

Dire situation

The need is obvious: Food stamp participation in the District climbed almost 29 percent from May 2008 to this May; it grew 15 percent in Maryland and nearly 23 percent in Virginia.

Funding requests to the United Way of the National Capital Area doubled this year, with $20 million in requests for the $3.9 million available.

The situation is dire, according to Glen O'Gilvie, chief executive of the Center for Nonprofit Advancement.

In a survey of regional nonprofits, the center found that nearly a third have cut staff and shut down or frozen programs.

Even organizations that saw trouble rising on the horizon have struggled to deal with the great increase in need.

Last year, in response to the economic crisis, the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region created a fund to shore up safety-net services. The Neighbors in Need fund has received more than $8 million in requests -- the greatest need for emergency services in the foundation's 36-year history, according to its president, Terri Freeman -- and is now trying to raise another $2 million to add to the more than $3 million donated so far.

Nationally, the Nonprofit Finance Fund reported that 93 percent of nonprofits that provide "lifeline" services anticipated increased demand this year, but that just 16 percent thought they would have enough in their operating budgets in 2009 and 2010 to make ends meet, said Kerry Sullivan, president of the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, which unlike many foundations did not scale back its giving this year.

In fact, it recently announced $20 million in grants to shore up operating budgets and foster leadership at nonprofits, most of them providing safety-net services.

Challenges ahead

If the economy has hit rock-bottom, said Chuck Bean, executive director of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington, then nonprofits can expect two years of challenges ahead.

So even though the economy shows signs of improvement, the increased unemployment rate, declining property values and the number of foreclosures means that more people are likely to need help; businesses are still mostly feeling cautious, not flush; and local government revenue is down.

"It's going to be a tough year for governments," said David Robertson, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, because state and local leaders cannot spend more than they take in, and most of their revenue comes from property taxes.

Nationally, almost every state faced a budget shortfall.

"Because the recession has been so severe, states have suffered really significant loss of tax revenue," said Nick Johnson, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Most states get most of their revenue from income tax and sales tax. When people lose their jobs, lose wages, income tax revenue goes down. With the stock market down, capital gains revenue goes down. Corporate profits go down, corporate tax revenue goes down. People feel poorer, sales taxes go down. It seems hard to believe, but right now, it looks like the next budget year for states will be even more difficult than this year."

Federal stimulus dollars buffered the state shortfalls last year, said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

In Washington, the mayor and council eliminated all the earmarks for nonprofits this year, and there have been last-minute cuts in funding that left nonprofits scrambling to fill unexpected gaps.

Virginia and Maryland are dealing with shortfalls -- nearly $2 billion in Maryland, for example.

"When we look toward the upcoming budget, we're going to have another serious multibillion-dollar shortfall as well," said Michael Cassidy, executive director of the Commonwealth Institute in Richmond, which studies fiscal policy in Virginia.

"With this budget, everyone is taking hits," said Mike Thompson, president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy.

Some counties have had deep cuts. Montgomery and Fairfax counties protected funding for safety-net services, even as they pared back elsewhere. "We keep cutting on the edges . . . because the people that receive the services are so vulnerable," and the need is so high, said Uma Ahluwalia, director of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services. Applications for the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program increased 40 percent this year, for example.

And yet, "I think now we're at a point where it's hard to protect them," she said. As they plan for the 2011 budget, "it's going to make deep, deeper cuts, because we have a county deficit and state deficits to fill.

"There is no fat to trim," she said. "It's gone. It's all gone."

Individual donations

So, it's back to the kitchen table: Goodwill of Greater Washington has seen an increase in individual donations this year, even as foundation and corporate support dropped.

The American Red Cross, which is launching an online catalogue to make it easier for people to donate, found in a national survey that even as many responded that they would be cutting back on spending for holiday travel, gifts, parties and decorations this year, fully two-thirds said that because of the economy, it is more important to give to charities this year. Sixty-two percent said they would donate the same amount as last year; 17 percent said they would give more.

That was despite the fact that more than 40 percent said they had lost money in the stock market, almost 15 percent had lost a job and nearly a quarter were working fewer hours or for less pay.

The region's federal workers have proved steadfast in their giving over time, increasing total contributions every year for the past six.

Last year, the Combined Federal Campaign of the National Capital Area raised a record of nearly $63 million from federal employees. The goal for this year is a bit more ambitious: $64 million.

Tim Kime of Leadership Greater Washington closed the meeting of local nonprofits by urging them to make real change to adapt to the new reality. "I encourage you to give generously this holiday season -- give of your dollars and your time," he said.

Meanwhile, at Martha's Table on Thursday, 232 people waited in line for a bag of food for their families -- far more than ever before had turned out in a single morning.

It's tough to watch, Buss said.

"People are standing in the rain for food."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company