By Starrla Cray
With words like “layoff,” “foreclosure,” and “financial crisis” becoming part of everyday vocabulary, the local county social services have seen more use as well, reflecting the struggling economy.
“It actually has skyrocketed in the last three or four months, particularly in the areas of food support and medical assistance,” said Donna Krauth, financial supervisor for McLeod County social services.
For medical assistance cases, McLeod County is up about 140 cases from this time last year, Krauth said. Food support cases have increased by 225 so far from 2008.
In Carver County, the work force center has had more visits as well, said Gary Bork, director of community social services for Carver County. In 2007, 74 people used the service each day, on average. In 2008, it was up to 85 people, and through February of 2009, 110 people per day utilized the center.
Wright County has also noticed increases.
“I can tell you financial, social services, and public assistance are going up,” Mary Bonlender, social services manager for Wright County, said.
Financial staff in Wright County screened 1,302 more people for financial services in 2008 than in 2007.
The largest increase was for the food support program, she said, with the number of applications more than doubling from 2007 to 2008.
In Meeker County, director Clark Gustafson said new records in the number of financial assistance cases have been set since September.
“We’ve been running around 1,500 in our county,” he said.
As for what’s causing the increase, Bork said it’s “the economy, plain and simple.”
“It’s creating stress for a lot of families,” Krauth said. “That is certainly the trigger point that we feel really increased our caseloads.”
Meeker County is at 11.2 percent unemployment, Gustafson said. “That’s the highest I’ve seen in my career.”
From Jan. 1 to March 10, 2008, 41 people in Carver County who applied for dislocated worker services were eligible. This year for the same time period, there were 144 people, Bork said.
For financial assistance in the county, there were 210 applications each month in 2003. In 2008, that number jumped to 348.
“There’s such a great food need as well as medical need out there,” Krauth said. “Cash assistance program usage has also increased, but not at quite the alarming rate. There are fairly stringent income guidelines.”
When applying for assistance, severance money and unemployment compensation also count as income.
Cash assistance can “be spent as you would your paycheck,” and requires a face-to-face interview to apply, Krauth said
“I would guess that 80 to 85 percent goes to rent and utilities,” she said.
Although a poor economy can produce financial troubles, it is possible that there may be some benefits to mental health, Gustafson said.
Woodland Centers in Willmar, a mental health center that serves six counties, including Meeker, has seen a decrease in the use of some of its services in the past few months, Gustafson said.
“Sometimes, people’s personal stuff gets pushed to the side when they’re dealing with financial issues,” he said.
However, there has been a spike in child protection referral intakes, which includes abuse and neglect.
“I think people are more stressed, and taking it out on their kids,” he said.
In Wright County, the number of children placed in shelter care rose from 83 in 2007, to 112 in 2008, Bonlender said.
Truancy intervention and services also increased considerably, she said, with 124 truants referred to the Truancy Diversion Program in 2008, compared to 29 in 2007.
Another observation Gustafson made is that the number of burials paid for by the county has been increasing.
“We had an inordinate amount of county burials,” he said. “Last year we set a record with 15.”
This year, Meeker County has about 10 already. “We’re way past the average,” he said, which is usually about six per year.
According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, people can ask for help from state and county cash, food, and health care programs by mail, by phone, or in person. An applicant must fill out a form and mail it or bring it in person to the county human service agency.
“We encourage people to apply even if it looks like, on the surface, they might not qualify,” Krauth said, because there are sometimes other programs for which the applicant might be eligible, such as Minnesota Care.
In McLeod County, the Common Cup ministry, which consists of area churches, can assist clients with needs that state and federal programs typically don’t cover, she said.
Counties also work closely with community resources such as local food shelves, the Salvation Army, American Red Cross, Heartland Community Action agency, Head Start, and more.
For more information or for an application, go to the Wright County web site social service page at www.co.wright.mn.us/department/humanservices.
In McLeod County, go to www.co.mcleod.mn.us and click on “social services” on the left side.
For services in Carver County, go to www.co.carver.mn.us/departments/CSS/index.asp.
In Meeker County, go to www.co.meeker.mn.us and go to the “department” tab. Then click on ‘social services.’