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Cost of Economic Booms Must Be Tallied in More Than Money : In New Hampshire, Buying Power Is Eroding for the Poor

February 07, 1988|NORMA LOVE and MARTHA ENGLERT | Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. — Debbie Burnell's dream, a tidy clapboard house and barn, is captured in a grainy photocopy of a picture stuck to the refrigerator in her ramshackle trailer.

But in the booming economy of New Hampshire, where many dreams have been realized, hers has to wait, along with those of many other working poor and elderly people.

Burnell, 33, works two jobs seven days a week so she can buy the small house, fearful that it will be sold before she saves enough money.

But it is tough saving, feeding her four children and paying the mortgage on the trailer and the acre under it, the only things she received in a divorce settlement. She has about $150 put away.

She earns $6.75 an hour at her bookkeeping job in Campton, about $230 a week after taxes. A weekend job as a hotel clerk pays $5 an hour, bringing in an additional $70.

Left Welfare Rolls

She believes in work and left the welfare rolls to take the two jobs--making her one of thousands of New Hampshire's working poor whose grit and pride stand between them and public assistance.

She is the kind of person some politicians like to point to while lauding the benefits of the state's economic boom--those no longer taking a handout from taxpayers and now earning above minimum wage.

But Debbie Burnell said those people have no idea what it's like to "live on disconnection notices."

New Hampshire's unemployment rate has been the lowest in the nation for 26 consecutive months.

"The good news is that if you want a job, one is available," said John Burns, state economic development director.

However, analysts say more than one-third of the state's residents have lost buying power this decade, principally because of a housing boom that makes seemingly generous wage increases pale in comparison to the costs of shelter. In that way, Debbie Burnell is a victim of the boom. The house she dreams of, the cheapest she could find, is listed for $70,000.

House Prices Rise 61%

The average statewide house price has risen 61% since December, 1984, and rents have risen correspondingly. One of every 12 New Hampshire residents lives in a household that devotes more than half its income to housing.

The state is studying affordable housing, but few expect dramatic action in an area traditionally left to market forces.

There are other economic contradictions.

Despite ubiquitous "help wanted" signs, soup kitchens and emergency shelters are among the state's growth industries. This year, 154 places in New Hampshire provide hot meals or hand out food, 30 more than last year. A food bank run by the Roman Catholic diocese in Manchester expects to dole out more than 1 million pounds of supplies, double last year's output.

"If someone said to me, 'People are not going hungry in New Hampshire,' I would tell them, 'You're not dealing with the real world,' " said Jarretta Copeland, who runs a soup kitchen in Nashua.

Governor Among Disbelievers

There are disbelievers--Gov. John H. Sununu, a Republican, among them.

His spokeswoman, Gretta Graham, said: "If we had cases of people suffering from that kind of thing, it would be noticed by the state and addressed by the state."

In the little community of Lost Nation, 81-year-old Earl Hall said he often saves half of the boxed meal he gets on Friday to tide him over until Monday, when the weekday deliveries resume.

Hall was one of the 4,923 New Hampshire elderly who received government-assisted meals at home in 1986, while 11,353 others were assisted in dining halls.

But with costs going up in a booming economy, those who provide the meals say it's becoming more difficult. Nearly every meals program has had trouble finding drivers and kitchen workers, who often are able to earn more than the average $4.50 to $5.50 an hour paid by meals programs.

Asked to account for hunger in the midst of plenty, advocates for the poor say that gains made in the 1970s in federally sponsored food programs, primarily food stamps, are being lost in the 1980s. They blame federal cutbacks and rule changes that make it impossible for many of the needy, especially the working poor, to get government aid.

Still Can't Pay Bills

They also say the abundance of jobs obscures the fact that many don't pay enough to enable families to meet their bills.

"It is a myth that a low unemployment rate and a surplus of jobs means people can adequately care for themselves," said Joan Callahan, Concord's welfare director.

Nonetheless, state officials say New Hampshire's growing pains are preferable to the problems of recession-plagued areas such as Texas and Louisiana.

"In any boom, there are going to be some people left behind," said analyst Brian Gottlob of the economic development division.

Added Burns: "It's better than when the economy is bad and no one can find a job. . . . I don't think we ought to panic and put fixes in."

Others say fixes are needed.

"The state policy of no policy," said Albert Luloff, a University of New Hampshire professor of rural sociology, may prove "very expensive in the long run."

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