The Market at Bluffton Self Help provides grocery assistance up to $400 a month for neighbors signed up for the program. PHOTOS COURTESY BLUFFTON SELF HELP

Workers in 50,000 households in Beaufort and Jasper counties are not making a living wage.

“At the beginning of 2022, we were using $57,000 as the livable wage for our area. Based on the data, we are now utilizing $75,000 as the livable wage,” said Courtney Hampson, executive director of Bluffton Self Help.

The data Hampson uses comes from the U.S. Census Bureau and MIT’s living wage model that generates a cost of living estimate. As calculated, the living wage estimate accounts for the basic needs of a family, but does not include items many Americans take for granted, such as dining out, entertainment, leisure time, holidays or the ability to save to buy a house or invest for retirement.

“100% of the neighbors we serve are at-risk,” said Hampson. “Families in poverty are living in sub-optimal housing and are food insecure. They receive food stamps and government assistance. As many as 30% have children under 18.”

Hampson breaks the at-risk categories into three groups for both counties: poverty, earning less than $25,000; vulnerable, earning between $25,000 and $50,000; and insecure, earning between $50,000 and $75,000.

Most of Bluffton Self Help’s neighbors come initially looking to enroll to shop at The Market, which provides a grocery savings of up to $400 a month, or they are applying for emergency financial assistance. 

“However, we know that when someone comes to us in crisis, there are at least three to five other issues also currently impacting their situation,” Hampson said. “It could be unreliable childcare, transportation, a reduction in work hours, or an increase in housing costs.” 

That increase could hit renters in at-risk situations when current rental assistance programs expire. In Beaufort and Jasper County, 36% of the homes are sub-optimal, meaning they lack working plumbing, have an incomplete kitchen – think dorm fridge and hot plate, and there may be multiple families are living together in one space. 

It keeps Hampson up at night.

“Neighbors who have had assistance with their rent will be faced with a rent bill that is now higher than it was when they applied for the program. When the Child Tax Credit enhancement doesn’t appear on tax returns in Quarter 1, it will be another reality check,” she said. 

Bluffton Self Help is also planning for the moment when families lose their rentals because they cannot meet the income requirement, cannot afford a 30% increase, and/or the developer’s tax credits for affordable housing expire and are not renewed. 

At the same time a year ago, the average number of neighbors being served was 1,300 per month. For the past six months, that number has increased to 2,000. 

In a report from the United Way Association of South Carolina, the amount of money needed to meet the costs of a family’s basic needs increased between 2016 and 2020 in all counties. For a family with two adults, one preschooler, and one school-age child, that cost of living increased on average by 16% across the state. 

This contrasts with the median wage, which increased only 8% over this period. 

The report – “The Self-Sufficiency Standard for South Carolina 2020” – defines the minimum income needed to realistically support a family, without public or private assistance. 

For example, a Beaufort County family with two adults, both working, with one preschooler and two school-age children, needs $75,000 to be self-sufficient.

An itemized list estimates the 2020 cost of housing, child care, food, health care, transportation, and miscellaneous items, as well as the cost of taxes and the impact of tax credits. The interactive online report on the UWASC website covers all 46 counties, and can be adjusted to define family sizes, from one adult to couples with children of different age groups. 

Vulnerable families are scraping to get by and are often faced with the decision of which bill to pay and which bill to skip. Insecure families may have a little savings, but an illness resulting in lost wages or a large household expense will cause stress and disruption to the status quo. 

This is the situation the staff at the Greater Bluffton-Jasper Volunteers in Medicine face on a daily basis.

“According to my reports, 6.9% of the population in Beaufort County live in poverty. Other specific areas are little lower, but even with those numbers, approximately 17% are without health insurance,” said Pamela Toney, the nonprofit’s executive director. “The average rent in Beaufort is $1,229, and in Bluffton it is $1,761. We are seeing an increase in people sharing apartments and houses.”

Many of the patients who visit the clinic have never been to a doctor because they cannot afford the insurance, although they make more than the national poverty level.

“The diagnosis is the less complicated part. I think the question is, ‘How do we take care of their medical needs?’ Many will take care of their children before themselves,” said Toney. “Many must choose between health needs and rent or food.”

Most of the patients suffer from hypertension, obesity or diabetes. Medications are free if they are available in the clinic’s non-dispensing pharmacy. 

Other pharmacy options include signing up for Med-I-Assist, which helps initially to pay for drugs, or WelVista, a South Carolina free drug program if the individual qualifies. If all else fails, then BJVIM pays for the drugs.  

The free clinic partners with Bluffton Self Help to get their clients to a source of food. Toney said patients are sometimes uncomfortable asking for food, although that is a big issue in getting people healthy. During the pandemic, BSH brought its mobile food truck to the clinic, making the food more accessible when the patients were at the clinic.

“Transportation is always an issue both getting our patients to the clinic, and then to collaborating medical providers when we refer patients. Often it is not the transportation, but the money needed to pay for the gas,” said Toney. “We try to help our patients with gas cards and money for food when needed.”

The stress of trying to find the resources to pay for everyday necessities, understanding when to take medications, the need to complete paperwork, the need to eat correctly all hinder the progress of the clinic’s patients. 

“Caring for the medical needs of our patients is only part of their medical picture. Environment, education, living conditions all are part of one’s well-being,” Toney said. “Many of our patients live in ‘food deserts’ where shopping for nutritious food is difficult. Between trying to find suitable and affordable housing, jobs, and childcare, taking better care of themselves is last on their daily list.”   

Hampson said the community is in crisis and more must be done. Partnerships and working relationships with other nonprofits, the school social workers, local government, county agencies, etc., are crucial. 

“One flat tire away from financial crisis is now more like one trip to the grocery store. With an 8% cost of living increase, how will our neighbors survive?” Hampson asked. “A crucial piece of the puzzle is the employers in the area paying a livable wage. Are they? Will they?”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.