The new year began with a sense of promise, heralded by a new vaccine that could end the pandemic and its accompanying sorrows and restrictions.
But as 2021 ends, uncertainty and stress remain very much a part of our lives.
Food, gas and home heating fuel prices have risen sharply, and November’s 6.8% inflation rate was the highest in nearly four decades.
Agencies in New Hampshire that help people in need are seeing the effects.
“We’re already faced with the need being so great, and inflation only adds to that,” said James Wilkie, executive director of Caregivers, which supports low-income seniors in Manchester, Nashua and surrounding towns.
“They’re getting less for their dollar, and it just increases the need,” he said.
Caregivers, a program of Catholic Charities New Hampshire, relies on volunteers to drive seniors to appointments and stores, and to deliver free groceries once a month.
Wilkie said he’s seen a recent decline in the number of people willing to do that. He thinks it’s because of the rising cost of gasoline.
For those who rely on the New Hampshire Food Bank, “it’s heat or eat,” said Executive Director Eileen Groll Liponis. “This time of year, you hear that phrase a lot.”
When people prioritize the bills they need to pay, she said, “Food’s at the bottom of the list.”
With the increasing costs of rent, heat, medicine and groceries, Liponis said, “It’s that way now for more folks.”
Madison Block, senior marketing communications associate at American Credit Counseling Inc., said her Massachusetts-based agency hasn’t seen an increase in clients because of rising costs — but she expects it is coming.
When prices rise, Block said, people often cover their expenses with credit cards. “They’ll probably wait a few months to a year struggling with that debt before they reach out for help,” she said.
“There’s a lot of stigma, there’s a lot of shame with people that have a lot of debt,” Block said. “People might tend to think of that as they’ve failed in some way.”
Her nonprofit agency provides free credit counseling and low-cost debt management programs, as well as free educational workshops and online resources. Counselors help clients consolidate credit card debt, and work with creditors to reduce interest rates.
“By the time people are reaching out to us for help, it’s because they really don’t know what else to do,” she said.
Positive news, but...
There was some positive economic news in 2021. Unemployment in New Hampshire hit 2.7% in November, below what’s considered full employment.
But because of the labor shortage, companies are paying higher wages to attract workers, in addition to spending more for utilities and transportation, the food bank’s Liponis said.
“And all of that ends up in the end prices to the consumer,” she said.
In 2020, because of the pandemic, the Food Bank increased the number of mobile food pantries it offered, holding 71 drive-thru events. This year, it held 123 mobile pantries statewide, providing more than 2.5 million pounds of food to about 40,000 families.
Liponis said many people appreciated the anonymous nature of the mobile pantries. “For them, the mobile pantry is an easy way for them to get into receiving charitable food assistance,” she said.
Many of those individuals never had to use social services so they may be unaware that there is fuel assistance or a food pantry available locally, Liponis said. That’s why volunteers at the mobile pantries hand out cards letting people know about other services that are available, such as SNAP and local agencies that can provide help on a more regular basis.
Block said her agency’s credit counselors advise clients to create an emergency fund. That way, she said, if prices go up, “You can dip into your emergency savings without having to put increases on credit cards. Credit cards are not free money.”
“It’s better to have that emergency savings to fall back on so you don’t have to get yourself in debt just to keep up with your expenses.”
Block also advises consumers to write down everything they spend money on. That might reveal, for instance, how much you’re spending on streaming services, coffee or takeout food, and show you places you might cut back.
“You might be surprised,” she said.
Block also suggests using a cash envelope system for expenses such as holiday gifts. “Leave your credit card at home and just bring cash,” she said.
When the cash is gone, stop shopping. “You’re not tempted to overspend if you leave your credit card at home,” she said.
Between inflation and the continuing health crisis, Block said, it’s more important than ever to put some money aside for emergencies. “If COVID’s taught us anything, it’s that we do need to be prepared for the worst-case financial situation,” she said.
“Even if you can only save $50 a month, save what you can.”
If things don’t improve soon, Wilkie from the Caregivers program for seniors in Manchester expects to see an influx of new clients.
But he said, “Part of the worry is the people that we don’t help, that we don’t know about. There’s so much need.”
These helpers want people to understand that the people they serve are our neighbors.
Wilkie said he thinks about a senior citizen he saw working at a checkout line in a big-box store instead of enjoying a comfortable retirement.
“Something happened in her life, something that she had no control over, whether it was the untimely death of a spouse, or a poor investment that went wrong, or maybe it was just poor planning,” he said.
“Everybody has a story, Wilkie said. “We can’t understand their story. All we can do is say: ‘What can we do to help you?’”