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Many not sharing in economic prosperity

by Jennifer Biller

STAFF WRITER

While many families are benefiting from the healthy economy, low unemployment rates, and the flourishing stock market, others in North Central West Virginia aren't as fortunate.

In fact, according to several local food pantries, they've seen no decrease in business despite the surging economy.

"Actually, we've seen an increase in need," said Sharon Lowther of the Salvation Army in Clarksburg.

"We used to give out 30 or 40 food orders a month. In April, we gave out 101," Lowther said.

The situation for the homeless has not improved locally, either.

"Our numbers have increased about 20 percent over last year," said Tim Heldreth, director of the Clarksburg Mission.

"We talk about the economy being up, but it seems like there are not as many labor jobs for people without education or skills," Heldreth said.

There is a widening gap between the rich and poor, especially in rural areas, said Mike Kiernan, spokesman for the Appalachian Regional Commission, a government-funded organization that works to support social and economic development in Appalachia.

"This is a huge problem," Kiernan said. "Certainly the gap between the rich and the poor is widening and is a concern."

Based on national data, the expanding discrepancy between the top one-fifth of earners who are doing the best and the bottom one-fifth of earners who are doing the worst has grown to an historic rate, said Greg Bischak, a senior economist at ARC.

"The income inequality hasn't been this high since the 1920s," Bischak said. But in the '20s it was significantly higher than it is now, he added.

The economic surge has the potential of leaving rural areas behind, Kiernan said. "The country isn't benefiting uniformly," he said.

Those higher-earning individuals participate in 401Ks and stock investments, while those on the lower end of the wage scale aren't seeing those benefits, Kiernan said.

"There's no question that those in rural America are not benefiting in the tremendous economic revolution taking place throughout the country," Kiernan said. "Unless there are creative interventions, they will be left behind."

Kiernan said the ARC is concerned about the counties that remain economically distressed, and is working on strategies to improve them.

"Low education levels is one area to tackle," Kiernan said.

The economic devastation for the poor is evident at many area shelters and food pantries.

Harriet Northey, a volunteer at the Mustard Seed food and clothing pantry, sees a variety of needy people, ranging from those who are unemployed to those who have jobs, but are barely scraping by.

"Some have a very low income and can't provide for themselves on what they make," Northey said. "They need supplemental clothing and food."

If the prospering economy takes a downward spiral soon, things may become more evenly matched between the rich and the poor.

"There would be dramatic change at the top," said Bischak. "At the bottom things are pretty dire already."

If the economy does bottom out, people in higher earning positions would lose jobs, while those in low paying jobs would have an even more difficult time finding work, Bischak said.

Staff writer Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1443.

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