Vickie Hawkins piled a shopping cart high with enough shirts, blouses, sweaters, socks and scarves to keep herself and a V teen-aged son and daughter "looking clean" through the rest of the fall. The stash cost her just under $20.
Hawkins, a part-time bartender, was part of a record crowd of 2,800 that recently scoured aisle after aisle of bargain basement-priced goods at Value Village, a Northwest Washington thrift shop.
"I ain't worred about Reagan," said Hawkins, as she rummaged through a rack of old bathrobes and nightgowns, "as long as they don't burn down the Value Village."
Hawkins is not alone in her quest for bargains. The average number of weekend customers at Value Village has jumped from 850 to 1,500 in one year, said a spokesman. At Goodwill Industries, business also has increased 15 percent in the past 18 months. Old clothing and furniture, once called vintage chic, is becoming a necessity for those who can't -- or won't -- pay the high price of new commodities.
A growing number of District residents are beginning to feel the effects of $35 billion worth of cuts in jobs and social programs that the federal government put into effect last weekend. These residents are searching for alternatives to the rising cost of nearly everything from food and shelter to clothing and entertainment, and their numbers are being attested to by consumer advocates and spokesmen for grocery chains, thrift stores and social service agencies.
In grocery stores, shoppers who long ago learned to use substitutes for meat and cheese are substituting even more. Other shoppers hoping to shave a few pennies from their food budgets are turning to food cooperatives that offer savings through lower overhead costs.
And universities and community groups are offering back-to-basics skills not only to help people stretch their dollars, but to earn a few as well, now that thousands may be faced with smaller paychecks. The new federal budget cut 3,500 city households from the welfare rolls, reduced the payments of another 3,800 and sent at least 2,500 federal employes to local unemployment compensation offices, in addition to the more than 1,000 city employes who were laid off because of budget cuts within the past year.
For instance, the United Planning Organization, a social service agency that may become another budget ax victim, and Howard University are sponsoring a free day-long Consumer Education Conference Oct. 16 to teach low-income residents everything from avoiding consumer fraud to how to plan meals and food budgets. And the University of the District of Columbia will soon start a Fixed Income Consumer Counseling service to teach subjects ranging from nutrition to home repairs.
The old-fashioned resourcefulness that is driving people to make up a budget and find bargains is not limited to one economic group.
Molly Haines, a Goodwill public affairs vice president, said that not only are more customers shopping at Goodwill stores, but these people represent different economic levels. "Those people who absolutely need to save money" are shopping at Goodwill, Haines said, and "shoppers who could afford the Mazza Galleria but . . . like the psychological boost of getting something for less money."
Houston Robinson, a recent Howard University graduate who studied communications and hasn't found a full-time job in television, paid $35 for two pairs of pants, a shirt and a sweater at Classic Clothing, a thrift and antique clothing store on Benning Road NE.
"In college it was fashionable," said Robinson, explaining why he shopped for old clothing. "Today, its economical."
Robinson, 22, shares an apartment with Chalfrantz Perry, a Howard law student. Neither was worried last week about any immediate effects of the Reagan administration's budget cuts.
"I won't be hit as quickly or directly as some others," Robinson said, noting that they still have to watch their money. Even though the budget cuts won't effect them immediately, "it will in the long run," Robinson said. "I was planning to go back to school."
But for Robinson and Perry and other Washington area students who depend on college loans for their education, budget cuts, inflation and high interest rates mean more shopping at second-hand stores, shared pizzas instead of full meals, photocopies of textbooks, and no more long, casual drives around town or concerts and evening movies. They catch the twilight shows that cost half the price of a regular movie ticket.
Edward Butcher, 65, a Northwest Washington resident and a regular at local thrift stores, said that food and housing, not clothing, are his biggest worries.
Butcher said that to cut down his expenses, he got a roommate to split the $215 a month rent for a Northwest Washington apartment. He gets just under $500 a month from an Army pension, Butcher said, but his roommate receives public assistance. Still, food costs are high for both men.
"Fortunately, I only have to feed myself but I find I'm spending well over $130 for food without being a big eater," Butcher said.
For families with lots of healthy appetites, stretching the food dollar can be difficult. But some residents are seeking relief from soaring food bills by buying less beef and more poultry, eating pasta instead of meat, and using well planned shopping lists, acccording to Giant Food, which has eight stores in the District.
None of the three new big food warehouse chains has stores in Washington. But District shoppers still can save on food bills through a new District-financed food cooperative program that will establish more open-air markets similiar to the D.C. Farmer's Market.
Having enough food is not just a cause of concern for low-income residents, however. Fannie Hill, a community worker and consumer advisor, believes knowing how and what to cook is a key to survival during economic hard times.
"If you can cook, you can get a job," Hill said last week, shaking a finger at a dozen low-income, mostly unemployed youth at the Sacred Heart Spiritual Church at 17th and Seaton streets NW. Hill showed the youths how to cook a low-cost, nutritionally balanced meal and learn a trade at the same time.
A consumer advisor for Washington Gas Co., Hill counsels low-income residents on eating well for less. A down-home folksy woman from Louisiana, Hill is also a community worker who has cooked for a living -- in District shools and private homes -- all of her life. And she is encouraging youth to learn how to do the same.
A hundred years after Booker T. Washington promoted basic manual-labor skills like cooking, sewing and bricklaying as a means for economic survival for blacks in this country, Hill is helping to organize Adams Morgan-area classes to teach practical cooking and sewing skills that she said will help blacks survive today.
Hill plans to help the students earn money while they learn by selling lunches and dinners to residents and officers at the Third District police station nearby.
"This is one trade the president can't throw out the window," Hill said before serving a lunch of rice vegetable salad, lemonade and coconut fruitcake. She said the meal would feed 40 people and costs only $6.
"If we don't learn to stretch a dollar there's gonna be many a day that we're not gonna have anything to eat," said Hill last week on the first day of the new fiscal year.
At the Harvest House Senior Center on Rhode Island Avenue NE, day coordinator Joan O'Kane wondered if there will be enough hot lunches available to neighborhood senior citizens. Harvest House and other senior centers receive lunches from the Senior Neighborhood and Companionship Club. This year, however, because of low funds, there will be no increase in the number of lunches served although the number of senior applicants may increase, O'Kane said.
But O'Kane is depending in part on programs like UDC's Fixed Income Consumer Counseling program. On Monday, FICC director Cynthia Bryant fixed fish stew for participants of Harvest House's day program. But before the meal, Bryant taught them about saving money and eating nutritiously with fish.
Bryant visits Harvest House every month with ideas about saving money as well as getting the most out of social security and government benefits. She said FICC counseled 55 senior citizen groups, community organizations, church clubs and school groups last year, but she expects the need to be even greater now. Because of this year's budget cuts, Bryant said, more people want to know what benefits are left and how to get the most for less money.
Helping ourselves and each other through self-help and volunteer programs is one answer, Bryant said. "I don't think people will be forced to volunteer, we'll be forced to share."