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Working class whites in Hall not immune to economic hardships
Local nonprofits see need rising for social services
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Brian Aycock and his family live on a tight budget like many working-class white residents. Some stereotypes have been redefined as whites struggled in the recession and still haven't been able to fully recover. - photo by Erin O. Smith

The poverty split

Hall population

White: 62 percent
Black: 8 percent
Latino: 27.5 percent

Receives food stamp

Households: 7,497
White: 52.6 percent
Black: 20.4 percent
Latino: 23.9 percent

Have poverty status in last 12 months

White: 6.3 percent
Black: 24.8 percent
Latino: 25.8 percent

Employed (residents in labor force age 16 and older)

White: 60.4 percent
Black: 60.2 percent
Latino: 72.7 percent

Median income in past 12 months

White: $60,249
Black: $27,799
Latino: $40,235

Brian Aycock, like so many Americans, is only one big expense away from breaking the bank.

It’s a fact of life when you’re living paycheck to paycheck.

“We have it a lot better than some,” Aycock, 39, said. “I recognize that and appreciate that. But we’re also in that range where we make too much to get any benefits, but we also have no money for savings.”

The Great Recession has left its mark on the white working class of Hall County, shaking up some stereotypes in the process. It’s not just minorities and the most marginalized groups that receive government assistance and a helping hand from nonprofits.

According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau reports, 53 percent of all food stamp recipients in Hall are white. Whites make up 62 percent of the population of Hall County, 39 percent in Gainesville.

Demand for services from whites young and old at local food pantries, ministries and legal clinics has risen in recent years, according to some nonprofit leaders, highlighting how a demographic once seemingly beyond the class struggles of the poor has ended up staring down some of the same hardships.

Wendy Glasbrenner, an attorney with Georgia Legal Services Program in Gainesville, can attest to the surge in need from whites. For 250 cases opened in the last 12 months, 56 percent of her clients were white, compared with 23 Hispanic and 18 percent African-American.

Most of her clients are women, and 34 percent of all clients are older than 60. They receive support applying and qualifying for food stamps, Medicaid enrollment, disability and unemployment insurance pay, and public housing.

“Our clients who are working for wages at or near minimum wage have a very hard time making ends meet for several reasons,” Glasbrenner said.

Child care costs, lack of access to public transportation and health care expenses are her clients’ major burdens.

“Persons with chronic illnesses may have to decide between medication and car payments or medication and rent, and all this impacts their ability to maintain employment,” Glasbrenner said.

Aycock knows that one blown engine or a broken leg can put his family on the financial brink.

Raised in an “old Gainesville family,” ensconced in the white middle class, Aycock said he was taught to work hard, get an education and a good job would come. He went into the military after high school and paid his way through college on scholarships, aid and part-time construction work.

Aycock went on to receive a graduate degree, work in Africa for the Peace Corps and teach in Japan, where he met his wife. None of that would have been possible, he said without the support of family, friends and even the government.

Stagnant wages and rising costs of living have played a role in redefining the working poor and lower middle class.

According to the Pew Research Center, when adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage peaked in 1968 at $8.54 (in 2014 dollars).

And the current $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage has lost about 8.1 percent of its purchasing power to inflation since 2009.

As housing, health care and food costs increase, the modern American family must also contend with shelling out for Internet service and cellphone coverage, items no longer considered luxuries. Aycock said his son could not complete his high school homework without a broadband connection.

Aycock said he now makes about $40,000 a year working in sales. His wife, who has a professional background in nonprofit management, earns $9.50 an hour doing custodial work in a local school.

With a daughter in college and savings (once the promise of the middle class) unavailable, Aycock said monthly budgets are tight. Every meal, car trip and leisure expense — from going to the movie theater to playing sports — has to be weighed against the family finances.

“It’s hard to get ahead,” he said. “It’s been a struggle.”

Terri Armour, executive director of the Gainesville office of Atlanta-based Action Ministries, said the demand for help from working-class and lower-middle-class whites is most pronounced in the rental and utility assistance program.

“We try to help prevent homelessness by providing emergency financial assistance to those who are about to be evicted or have their utilities disconnected,” she said. “One of the things we’re seeing, too, is some of the poorer whites who normally would have been able to get by ... it’s harder for them to get and keep a job.”

The majority of jobs lost during the recession were considered “professional,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the majority gained back is lower-paying service and retail jobs.

That means workers with more experience and better education are competing with those who have fewer skills, which is why Action Ministries recently launched a local adult GED program.

For Aycock, the struggles of the white working class pale in comparison to challenges facing some minorities. After all, health insurance rates and median incomes remain much stronger.

But he’s troubled that if doing everything expected — serving his country, receiving a college degree, holding no debt — is barely enough to make ends meet, then what more can be done?

“It’s not entitlement,” Aycock said. “I wasn’t born thinking somebody owed me a job. I’m not above doing anything.”

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