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Local families feel impacted by post-pandemic fallout

Jan. 31—ANDERSON — Alyssa Keys makes $16.50 per hour at a juvenile detention facility, not enough to sustain her family of three without danger of going into debt.

"I switched jobs, rent went up and utilities are going up," Keys said during the Dec. 19 Toys for Tots toy drive at the UAW Hall in Anderson.

"Thank God for this. I (was) worried they're not going to have anything under the tree."

The United States' child poverty rate soared from 5.2% to 12.4% in 2022, according to the most recent data from the United States Census Bureau.

That amounts to 3,468 children in Madison County, according to Karen Hemburger, vice president of impact for Heart of Indiana United Way, which includes Madison County.

The expiration of federal stimulus and expanded child tax credit funds have contributed to the rise in child poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The tax credit, which provided families with $250-$300 per child per month, did not carry over into 2022.

Keys used both programs, she said, to help pay for living expenses, which since 2021 have included a $800 monthly rent payment and $450 in utility bills.

The Keys' household consists of Keys, 5-year-old Ahmiya and 4-year-old Ahmeera.

Her pre-tax income is more than $34,320 per year. Her wages fall above the United States Census Bureau's $23,578 poverty threshold for a family of three.

"I'm financially trapped," she said.

Keys' wages fall below what a local family would need to live, according to an Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed report from the United Way.

This report covers individuals who, like Keys, earn above the federal poverty level but not enough to make ends meet.

A local family with two adults and two school-age children would need to make $27.35 per hour or $54,696 per year to survive in 2021, during which all of the COVID benefits were in place.

Rising costs have contributed to increased food insecurity.

Andrea Baker, executive director of Operation Love Ministries in Anderson, said her organization consistently sees 125 families a week.

"That's an additional 100 families every month that are food insecure," she said.

Most of these families are not regulars, according to Baker.

"We only see (most) families two or three times a year. Some families are coming in once a year. When we start seeing increases like this, we know that more families are being affected by the prices of everything rising."

Overall, Operation Love served 6,555 families in 2023.

Skyrocketing rent has also been a problem.

Some landlords have increased rates to recoup income lost under the federal eviction moratorium during the pandemic.

The higher rates have become normal rent prices or "fair market rent," according to Kim Townsend, director of the Anderson Housing Authority.

In Anderson, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom home is $890 per month, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. A person would need to make $17.12 per hour to afford such a residence.

Rent for Keys' three-bedroom apartment has increased by $200 since 2021.

"We're trying to move, and they (other landlords) want $1,800. I can't move," she explained.

Since August 2023, Keys works third shift at the youth center, where she cleans, does laundry and checks on inmates.

Before that, she was a general manager at Pizza King in Chesterfield for five years. Before that, she worked as a home health aide.

Rising prices have led Keys to seek a part-time job, which she hopes will offset expenses. She also plans to leave Anderson. Keys had not found a part-time job as of Jan. 23.

Keys, a Richmond native, moved to Anderson about 10 years ago because it's the hometown of her now-estranged husband.

"I'm going to have to move out of Anderson because I can't afford to live here," Keys said,

She's thinking of returning to Richmond, where she hopes to find more affordable housing.

Local help is available for Keys and others with similar situations, according to Hemberger of Heartland United Way.

She recommends connecting with Firefly, an organization dedicated to supporting families. Firefly can help parents take care of necessities.

United Way's THRIVE Network also offers resources for families struggling to stay out of debt.

THRIVE coaches can help with budgeting, finding local resources, accessing food pantries and getting utility assistance. United Way also has employment coaches who can help people find better-paying jobs.

Having a support system could be another form of help. Shelby Skipper, a local 25-year-old single mother, knows this well.

Skipper said she has a good support system, which makes her financial situation easier.

Skipper currently stays home with her young son, Jiovanni, also known as "Jio," who's autistic and needs specialized attention.

She hopes to get him into a daycare that can better handle children with autism. Only then, will she be able to work.

Follow Caleb Amick on Twitter @AmickCaleb. Contact him at caleb.amick@heraldbulletin.com or 765-648-4254.