A survey targeting local low-income families has found that 40 percent of respondents felt they have very little or no job security, according to results being released this week.
That kind of instability makes it challenging to commit to car loans, apartment leases and tuition payments – steps often necessary to improving a family’s economic standing.
Of those participating in the survey, more than 1 in 2 has received free groceries or meals and about 1 in 4 has needed help with housing, utilities or health care.
The 502 responses reflect the experiences of those who continue to struggle in northeast Indiana more than five years after the point economists say the Great Recession ended. This was the sixth consecutive year the survey was conducted by members of the Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers’ Initiative.
As various politicians kick off their 2016 presidential campaigns, the topic of income inequality is gaining attention. Democrat Hillary Clinton, former senator and secretary of state, has embraced the issue. So have some of her Republican rivals, including Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.
The widening gap between rich and poor is playing out in a national economy that was largely stagnant in the first quarter of this year.
Feeling the pain
More than 40 percent of those surveyed said the local economy is either in another recession or has entered a fundamental and lasting downturn. Only 30 percent believed an economic recovery is underway. The rest – 28 percent – said they weren’t sure.
Participants were not chosen by random sampling, the scientific method used to ensure statistically valid results. But survey organizers say local leaders can learn from participants’ experiences – even if they can’t use the data to draw conclusions about larger groups of people.
"We want to make sure that those workers, that those individuals, those families that are sometimes left out of the discussion have a voice in the economy," said Gayle Goodrich, AFL-CIO community services liaison to the United Way of Allen County.
Business leaders, politicians and economists generally dominate the discussion on economic matters, she said.
"But you don’t get to hear from the average worker very often," Goodrich said.
The methodology differed from another report Goodrich contributed to late last year. She helped compile statistics for Indiana’s first ALICE report, a United Way project. ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. The group is commonly referred to as the working poor.
That report pulled together data from numerous sources to paint a more three-dimensional picture of struggling families’ lives. The Workers’ Initiative’s survey seeks a similar goal.
Max Montesino, IPFW associate professor of organizational leadership and supervision, praised the local survey.
Few researchers seek out immigrant and refugee populations to learn about their experiences in the economy, he said. "This is a universe of respondents that are very difficult to reach."
Nuts and bolts
Goodrich plans to share the results with United Way co-workers and partner agencies.
The Workers’ Initiative plans to present its findings publicly at some point and invite elected officials, survey volunteers and respondents who provided contact information.
Even those who don’t work at, volunteer at or contribute to the nonprofits providing services to the surveyed families can make a difference in their lives, Goodrich said. That includes economic development officials.
"I hope that they’ll continue to look for ways to bring better job opportunities into the community and make sure people have the skills to fill those jobs," she said.
Last fall, hundreds of area residents were invited to fill out the survey. Of the 502 total responses gathered, 347 were completed in English, 56 were done in Spanish and 99 were written in Burmese.
Offering the survey in three languages is time-consuming, organizers said, but allowed some enlightening comparisons.
"The non-English survey participants were less likely to report their household economy was experiencing a downturn and were more optimistic about the next generation’s economic future," the final report stated.
Goodrich, who has a master’s degree in sociology, was among about two dozen people who drafted questions, collected responses, compiled data and wrote the final report.
The effort was primarily carried out by volunteers, but Goodrich was paid for a portion of her time because the work dovetailed with her United Way responsibilities.
The format was based on a survey conducted by Rutgers University’s School of Planning and Public Policy. Over the years, members of the Workers’ Initiative have consulted a local team of social scientists for guidance while updating questions to address specific areas of interest.
Paper forms were distributed in places where low-income families are likely to be found: food banks, township trustee offices, free church dinners, black barber shops, the local WorkOne office and at the annual Labor Day picnic at Headwaters Park. The survey was also available online.
Responses were solicited from September through November. Survey participants ranged in age from 18 to 99, with 46 as the median age.
Participants were offered the opportunity to enter a drawing for a $50 Kroger gift card, which required providing their name and address. Or they could choose to remain anonymous. Based on contact information provided, organizers know the survey was completed by residents of Whitley, Steuben and Huntington counties in addition to Allen County.
When volunteers crunched the numbers, they found the average and median annual household incomes reported by survey participants was less than 40 percent of the $45,006 median the American Community Survey reported for Allen County. That leads survey organizers to conclude that they succeeded in targeting local low-income households.
What it is
Goodrich doesn’t discount the value of traditional surveys.
But, she said, studies that follow the scientific route can easily miss out on talking to people without phones or addresses.
"I wish we could do a larger sampling … that represents a larger population," Goodrich said. "But we don’t have the resources to do that. So we target low-income and immigrant populations."
Workers’ Initiative surveyors included native Spanish- and Burmese-speaking volunteers who reassured participants that they could answer questions without fear of retribution, such as arrest or deportation.
Getting undocumented workers to talk "is impossible without building up good credibility with that population," said Montesino, who is Latino.
Once results are gathered, Goodrich and others are careful not to draw conclusions unless data firmly back them up.
For example, 36 percent of Burmese respondents indicated they have "a lot of job security." But the survey was taken a few months before Vera Bradley Inc. announced plans to close its New Haven factory, a decision that put 250 first-shift employees out of work, including numerous Burmese.
Although some people might assume that the Vera Bradley closure would have severely rattled local Burmese residents’ sense of job security, Goodrich isn’t willing to make that leap.
She doesn’t know whether anyone completing the survey was employed by Vera Bradley. And she won’t speculate on potential ripple effects the closure has had on the local immigrant community’s psyche.
Montesino is following Goodrich’s lead by not drawing conclusions about the local Latino population from the survey results, but he has noted some data that could help his efforts to lobby for immigration reform.
Back to that job security question, 33 percent of Spanish-speakers indicated they have no job security at all. In addition, 16 percent of that group said they have very little job security, for a total of almost 50 percent.
Meanwhile, 75 percent of the Burmese survey participants said they have some or a lot of job security.
Montesino said the disparity reflects the fact that the Burmese are political refugees who were given Social Security numbers, work permits and green cards when they were brought to the United States. But many Latinos lack that documentation, forcing them to take any jobs they can find from employers who are willing to break the rules.
"What they have this week might not be available next week," he said of day work at construction sites or in farm fields.
What happens next is anyone’s guess.
Montesino, the IPFW professor, said the survey results provides some insight into local low-income households.
"Those who make policies, who put programs together that impact this community, will have more information to base those decisions on," he said. "I do see value in this."
Last year, for example, an AFL-CIO official delivered a copy of the 2013 survey results directly to President Barack Obama. The goal is to make people in power at the local, state and federal levels aware of the everyday struggles of low-income Americans.
Goodrich already is drafting new questions for the survey to be taken this fall.
She wants more specifics from the 49 percent of Burmese respondents who said they or their families need help with "personal problems." The multiple-choice answers offered last year were too vague to offer insight into what kinds of assistance families need, she said.
Goodrich hopes the community will develop an economy in which all people can achieve their goals and potential.