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Lowville, pt.2: inside the safety net

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This week, we're viewing the recession through the lens of one North Country community: the village of Lowville in Lewis County. Yesterday we heard from Main Street merchants struggling to make a living. Climb the hill from Main Street, up the Tug Hill Plateau, toward the East's largest wind farm, and you reach Lewis County's social services building. Inside, caseworkers are flooded with new clients. Heating assistance and food stamp applications are up 40%. As David Sommerstein reports, those who hold the safety net want even more people to use it.

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David Sommerstein
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It's dead right now in the social services waiting room.  Caroline Verkler's pretty amazed, "There are times it's totally jam-packed."

Verkler's a social welfare examiner.  She's been here 24 years.  She leads the way into examination room #3 -- a non-descript room with two chairs, a desk with a computer.  Verkler says this is where all people start their journey into social services.  She says it's often a painful first step,"Some people come in crying or embarrassed because they have to come to the department and ask for help, but that's what we're here for and we want to help them."

Verkler calls in another social worker, Tammy Kavinsky.  Kavinsky says people are coming in who never sought help before, "When people think of food stamps, they think of single-parent families, people with no income, but we've seen a huge increase in the elderly and disabled.  We've seen a big increase in intact households, meaning a mother and father with children."

Layoffs are hitting Lewis County hard.  The Fibermark paper mill, the racetrack in nearby New Bremen, and Air Brake in Watertown all cut workers in the last month.  Workers at the Climax paper mill took a pay cut.  Builders and small businesses, too.  Kaminsky says everyone's cutting back, "Whereas in the past, we've had a downturn in a particular industry, now it's so widespread, they've maybe ridden it out in the past, but now they're really seeing a need that they need to come in and get benefits for their families."

One in eight people now lives below the poverty rate in Lewis County. Virkler says because of the stigma associated with welfare or because they just don't know what's available, some people wait to seek help until it's too late.  She says four newly homeless people came in in one day last week, "It does put a lot of stress on our workers too.  One of our workers may be trying to help a homeless person all day.  That may be their day's job."

The story's similar across the North Country.  In St. Lawrence County, welfare requests are up 14 percent, applications for food stamps are up 17percent.  And the department of social services has actually lost staff members.  Chris Redies is the director. He says,"We have had lines, significant lines.  We have a lot of phone calls coming in, we're not able to answer all the calls.  We have tremendous enthusiasm for making sure that everyone is served well and in a timely way, but we are doing our best in this difficult situation." 

In the Lowville office, each social worker has a cubicle in a big work room, separate from the client examination rooms.  Denise Hall's shuffling through the pile of paperwork on her desk. She says, "It gets so frustrating because each family that comes in you find yourself, your emotions rise right along with the family."

Hall says some clients are in a panic.  Some don't qualify for help.  And she says with the recession and more budget cuts on the horizon, the gap between client and caseworker can seem awfully narrow, "My husband's self-employed, and he's noticed a dramatic change in the amount of business that he has coming in, so we may be on this side of the desk, but we still have our jobs that we worry about and we still have our bills that we have to pay so we kind of feel right along with them."

You'd think, with this siege of new cases, social services would be dissuading more people from coming in.  But it's actually the reverse.  New York State has made it easier to qualify for assistance than ever before.  You can even apply for food stamps over the phone and online now.  Lewis and nearby Jefferson counties are actually statewide leaders on this front.

Social worker Tammy Kavinsky says the department is responding to tough times, "People are scared.  We're looking at people who have worked, who have had health care, that no longer have health care available to them.  We've got individuals that are used to making a certain amount of money and living a certain lifestyle that all of a sudden, they're facing the fact of, do I pay the rent?  Am I getting a prescription for my child? Am I paying for gas?  What am I doing?"

Kavinsky says more people are learning what it's like to live paycheck to paycheck.  And as more go off unemployment without finding jobs, the social services office will only get busier.

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