High cost of living in NH drives more people to get welfare assistance for the first time
Local welfare administrators say the high cost of living in New Hampshire is driving an increase in first-time and elderly clients seeking assistance. A recent report from the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy noted that one in three New Hampshire adults say they are struggling to pay for household expenses. The report says that difficulty is fueled by New Hampshire's high housing and child care costs and inflation.
NHPR Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Todd Marsh, the president of the New Hampshire Welfare Administrators Association, about the forces behind this trend and potential solutions.
- Even though unemployment is low, Marsh says people with steady incomes still struggle to keep up with high costs.
- Marsh says more housing capacity could help bring costs down as the state’s vacancy rate remains low.
- Marsh also wants more investments in supportive housing – situational arrangements between social services and landlords that helps tenants stay in their homes. He says that minimizes the amount of assistance municipalities end up paying to clients in the long-run.
- Pandemic aid from the state and federal government helped many clients stay afloat, but more people sought out welfare services when that aid ended. Marsh said some clients struggled to get back in the habit of paying rent and budgeting because the rental assistance went directly to landlords.
First, can we talk about what welfare is? What kinds of assistance do towns offer?
We offer housing assistance through rent, mortgages, utilities, including electricity, natural gas, heating assistance, prescriptions. We are less of an accountant role than we are social services.
You lead this group of welfare directors in towns and cities across the state. Are you and your peers seeing any change in the number of people needing assistance right now?
We are. We've never been void of people approaching us. However, we have seen an increase. We're seeing an increase in senior citizens. And now too often the increases in rent are literally beyond their income.
Recently I had someone in my office in his mid 70s – income about $1,200 a month, Social Security – and then the rent went up. He could no longer afford it, so he was in our office. First welfare type of office he ever went into, and he was disillusioned, embarrassed. Life happens, and it's beyond his control. And we're seeing more and more situations like that.
Is this an issue that's happening across the state, or are there particular pockets or regions or towns or cities where it's more prevalent?
It's happening across the state. I am in communications with my peers and municipalities from the North Country to the Seacoast area to the Keene area to the west in varying degrees. It's happening throughout, including those senior citizens that we didn't see to the degree that we are.
And of course not just senior citizens but people that otherwise have been considered having decent incomes that can no longer afford the rent that they're in. There's less discretion. There's less flexibility with challenges that may crop up in life.
This report [from the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute] noted that Granite Staters had less difficulty affording some living costs when there were pandemic aid initiatives like Economic Impact Payments, Advance Child Tax Credit funds and rental assistance. How did you see that pandemic aid affect the people that you work with?
That was a lifeboat for many of our residents, and at that time, local welfare departments were seeing less people because of that federal aid. After the assistance programs ended, local welfare departments and social services departments throughout the state did see more people. And due to the increase in rent, the amounts of rent owed are higher than it was previously. The holes that people are digging are deeper and quicker.
And harder to get out of?
What are some of the investments that you believe lawmakers have made or could be making that would help with the high cost of living here in New Hampshire?
I think that it is on the radar of many state leaders, including municipalities. I think increasing both housing capacity and earning capacity – housing capacity through creative means, including through zoning and infrastructure improvements. Another would be increasing tenant staying capacity through case management, supportive housing. It's an investment that helps keep people where they are. That will minimize the amount of assistance that our municipalities pay through local welfare and the state pays and other helping agencies pay.
And in addition, I recognize that employment is bountiful and income is higher than it was in years past. However, people don't sleep in their workplace. People don't call their workplace home. So, yes, jobs exist. However, those increases in employment simply are not keeping up with the rising costs of rents and utilities and everything else.