One week after being laid off from his job as marketing manager at fireproof-safe maker Sentry Group, Jeremy Hawk had found his way to the New Horizons networking support group offered weekly at St. Joseph Parish in Penfield.
Most of the nearly two dozen chairs in the room were filled by job seekers who in the past month had lost their jobs at area companies.
The large turnout was just one example of how the ailing economy is prompting people to flood area ministries in search of help.
The New Horizons support group wound up at St. Joseph Parish after several years of moving from various venues in the Penfield area. Originally founded in 2002 by and for former Xerox employees, it subsequently expanded to include employees from any Rochester-area company, who — in the group’s parlance — have been “liberated” from their previous jobs.
The group previously consisted of about eight to 10 regulars, but in the past three to four weeks, attendance has ticked up into the mid-20s, according to Pete Chatfield, the group’s organizer and a parishioner of St. Paul Church in Webster.
“The whole idea is to try to give people a place to learn some new skills or find out where to go to learn new skills and give people a place to vent,” Chatfield said.
Publicity for the group’s meetings has been handled partly through St. Joseph’s bulletin. Hawk heard about it from his wife’s aunt, Susan Pixley, a longtime member.
Though he’s enjoying the chance to reconnect with friends through networking and spend time with his children — ages 7, 4 and 1 — Hawk said his biggest challenge has been finding affordable health insurance for his family. While his wife is on maternity leave from her job as a teacher, Hawk has enrolled his children in the low-cost health program Child Health Plus, offered by New York state.
“I’ve got my down moments, but I try not to dwell on the situation,” Hawk said, adding: “My new job is looking for a job.”
Layoffs are mounting
Layoffs are piling up across the Rochester Diocese. New York’s statewide unemployment rate reached 7 percent in December 2008, according to the state Department of Labor, compared to 4.6 percent in December 2007, when the national recession began. During the last three months, New York employers have cut 100,000 jobs, the labor department noted.
One local example is Corning Inc., which has announced that it is cutting 3,500 jobs worldwide. Some of those cuts have already taken place at Corning facilities in Erwin, Steuben County, and Perinton, Monroe County.
“In the last month or two, they have started layoffs, but it has been done in waves, so we haven’t had the full impact,” said Trish LaFortune, pastoral associate at All Saints Parish in Corning.
LaFortune noted that when a large round of layoffs at Corning occurred in 2002, the parish experienced an appreciable loss in collections, some area retailers closed and many parishioners left the area to find work elsewhere.
“That had a significant impact on the parish and the entire community,” she recalled.
LaFortune said All Saints Parish recently has been discussing whether it should offer consumer credit counseling or other ministries to help those experiencing hard times. In 2002, the parish offered support to job hunters but found that many people were reluctant to publicly share information about their job searches.
“We tried to provide information and resources as much as we could behind the scenes at that time,” LaFortune said.
Although the Corning parish is just beginning to feel the strain of layoffs, Catholic Charities offices in various areas of the diocese report that the poor economy has caused an increased demand for services and an increase in donations.
Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes has seen a 40-percent increase compared to last year in applications for its Home Energy Assistance Program, and more than 600 new, first-time applications were received between November and January, according to Ellen Wayne, the organization’s executive director.
Wayne noted that the agency’s walk-in community lunch program also has seen a 22-percent increase in use, and said that on any given day its clients include people wearing name badges from their current jobs.
“These are people who are having some income and are feeling the strain of the economy,” Wayne said.
Clients of Catholic Charities of Livingston County are increasingly having trouble paying for their utilities, rent and prescription drugs, said Joseph DiMino, the agency’s executive director. But he noted that the agency just wrapped up its most successful fundraising appeal ever.
“We are seeing an incredible increase in contributions, which has been so inspiring for us,” DiMino said.
Wayne said Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes also has seen donors step up to meet the increased need.
“We did see a slight increase to our holiday appeal, but at the same time, we realized reductions in funding from the state, foundations and governmental grants,” Wayne said. “Balancing out the two becomes the challenge.”
Budget fights intensify
Gov. David Paterson’s proposed 2009-10 budget cuts, which are intended to close the state’s $13 billion budget gap, could mean significant losses in funding for programs run by Catholic-affiliated organizations.
The New York State Kinship Navigator program, for example, would experience a 50-percent cut in its $250,000 operating budget if the governor’s proposed cuts are adopted.
“A 50-percent cut will make these programs nonfunctional,” said Gerard Wallace, director of Kinship Navigator, which is operated by Rochester’s Catholic Family Center and funded by the state Office of Children and Family Services.
The program operates a hotline and a Web site to help support family members who are caring for children to whom they are related. Kinship care helps keep children out of the public foster-care system and, ultimately, saves money by avoiding foster-care expenses, Wallace said.
“Kinship families in private care have better outcomes,” he said. “It seems very reasonable to provide some supports to this community.”
Speaking at a Feb. 10 press conference protesting the proposed cuts, Deborah Quarles of Rochester said that before connecting with Kinship Navigator, she received many denials as she sought support in caring for her grandchildren.
“Doors that I could not open, (Kinship Navigator) opened for me,” Quarles said.
Other advocates who spoke at the press conference decried such other proposed cuts as those in funding for home health-care aides, which disability advocates say could force some people to move from independent living into institutions, costing the state more in the long run.
Jeff Crane, superintendent of the West Irondequoit School District, said cuts in the state education budget would force schools to make drastic cuts in such nonmandated programs as music and the arts.
“This is the time to have all New Yorkers share in this burden,” Crane said.
That’s the theme of the statewide “Fair Share Tax Reform” campaign, which is advocating a 1.4 -percent increase in the personal income tax rate for people earning more than $250,000, a 2.12-percent rate increase for those with incomes greater than $500,000 and a 3.45-percent rate increase for those earning more than $1 million.
Yet fiscal conservatives contend that the state already is too reliant on revenues from its top earners and Wall Street, which have collapsed under the current economic crisis.
“In 2007, at the peak of the last boom, the highest-earning 1 percent of New Yorkers generated 41 percent of the state’s tax revenues, up from 26 percent in 1995,” Edmund J. McMahon contended in Feb. 3 testimony to the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committees.
McMahon, director of the fiscally conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy and a senior fellow for tax and budgetary studies with the Manhattan Institute, reasoned that previous tax cuts and tax credits have shifted too much of the tax burden to New Yorkers with higher incomes.
“States opting to impose steeply rising income tax rates can expect to lose some of their most industrious and talented citizens to jurisdictions with low (or no) income taxes,” McMahon testified. “Highly skilled individuals remaining in the state make up for the larger tax bite by charging more for their labor or services, which further drives up the cost of living and doing business.”
Advocates of the Fair Share tax proposal counter that although rising taxes might prompt high-income households to reduce their spending, such households typically spend a much smaller fraction of their income, as compared to the spending of low-income households. They also noted that higher state taxes are deductible on federal income taxes.
Those debating the redistribution of wealth increasingly speak about the immorality of the widening gap between rich and poor.
“What’s happened in our society is a massive redistribution of wealth and income,” David Cay Johnston, a Brighton resident and a former New York Times reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for reporting about the U.S. tax code, said during a Dec. 16 talk at the United Auto Workers Local 1097 Hall in Rochester.
Johnston said that for each additional dollar of average-income growth for the bottom 90 percent of the population from 1981 to 2005, $141,000 per person went to the top one-hundredth of 1 percent of the population.
In his book Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill), Johnston argues that tax cuts, government subsidies, tax abatements and tax incentives are to blame.
“It’s perfectly reasonable to make a profit,” Johnston said. “It’s not perfectly reasonable to gouge people.”
Nowhere are inequalities in wealth more visible than in Rochester’s child-poverty statistics, which are some of the highest in the nation. Within the City of Rochester, 42 percent of children live in poverty, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. The city’s poverty rate for individuals 18 years and older is 25 percent.
“It just strikes me as a scandal in an area that has a lot of resources that we haven’t figured out how to address poverty, especially in children,” said Marvin Mich, director of social policy and research for Catholic Family Center and president of the board of directors for the Greater Rochester Community of Churches.
Mich said the economic crisis may have a bright side, however, in that it may help people focus more clearly on such inequalities and on promoting the common good.
“In today’s climate, people are struggling to stay afloat themselves, but maybe there’s a solidarity with others,” said Mich, author of The Challenge and Spirituality of Catholic Social Teaching.
Closing the gap between the rich and the poor is necessary to bring about peace in the world, Pope Benedict XVI contended in the 2009 World Day of Peace message he delivered Jan. 1. The pontiff said the recent financial crisis illustrates how it is possible for global financial activity to lack any long-term consideration of the common good.
“This lowering of the objectives of global finance to the very short term reduces its capacity to function as a bridge between the present and the future, and as a stimulus to the creation of new opportunities for production and for work in the long term,” the pope said in his peace message.
Yet rather than redistributing existing wealth, anti-poverty efforts should create opportunities for development, Pope Benedict said.
“In today’s globalized world, it is increasingly evident that peace can be built only if everyone is assured the possibility of reasonable growth: sooner or later, the distortions produced by unjust systems have to be paid for by everyone,” he said.