By Sarah Nagem
Melieon Bowman’s job at Walmart used to be enough for his family of four to get by. But the rising costs of gasoline, groceries and just about everything else has forced him to take on odd jobs – “whatever will give me any kind of money I can get,” he said.
Bowman, 39, said he got home at about 11:45 p.m. Sunday after he completed his shift at Walmart in the Scotland County town of Laurinburg. Early the next morning, he got up to haul a couple loads of scrap metal for extra cash. Later, he returned to work for another shift.
“With a full-time job making decent money, it’s still not cutting it,” Bowman said.
The Bowmans, like many North Carolina families, are feeling the effects of inflation and gas prices that are hovering above $4.50 a gallon. They say they are doing everything they can to pay the bills while also making sacrifices: No more eating at restaurants. No more family outings. No more driving the car unless it’s absolutely necessary.
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Economists offer varying reasons for the fastest-rising prices in four decades, including too much spending. Earlier this month, the Federal Reserve increased interest rates by .75 percent – the largest hike since 1994 – in an effort to tame inflation.
Meanwhile, record-high gas prices are a reflection of the rising costs of crude oil, which are in turn a reflection of the global economy.
For families like the Bowmans, the reasons might seem less important than the consequences. The frustration is real, particularly in southeastern North Carolina, home to some of the poorest counties in the state. The region has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the cost of housing has risen considerably.
“It doesn’t look good for anybody right now,” Bowman said, adding that his whole family is feeling the pain.
His wife used to work for the online-shopping service Instacart, he said, but it’s no longer worth it with the high price of gas. The same goes for the extra money he used to make working for the food-delivery service DoorDash.
Bowman said the family recently ran out of dog food before payday, so his wife made a homemade version out of canned chicken and rice.
His teenage daughter is particularly struggling since school let out for the summer. She’s bored, Bowman said, and she misses getting out of the house.
“Eating out and going out – it’s been pretty much cut out all together,” he said. “We don’t even leave the house at this point and (don’t) drive the vehicles until it’s necessary.”
‘One paycheck away’
In neighboring Robeson County, Wendy Hardin is also doing what she can to get by.
Hardin said she used to spend about $300 a month on groceries for her and her 10-year-old grandson. Now, she said, she spends more than $400. At one point, she said, it cost about $30 to fill the gas tank in her 2013 Ford Fusion. Now it costs double that amount.
Hardin knows what it’s like to struggle. As one of nine children growing up on a farm near Lumberton, she used to eat breakfast cereal with half milk and half water. Her mother would serve “mystery sandwiches” – ketchup between two slices of bread.
“I always wondered why she called it a mystery sandwich,” Hardin said. “She said, ‘Imagine whatever kind of meat you want on there.’”
Later, when Hardin was raising two kids of her own, she became homeless. Sometimes she slept in her car, she said, and sometimes she would stay in a local motel in exchange for cleaning the rooms.
Today, Hardin works to help others. As the facilities manager at the Robeson County Church and Community Center, she oversees the organization’s food pantry.
With costs rising, Hardin said, families from all walks of life are in need. “We’re only one paycheck away from the people who come in these doors,” she said. “I know – I’ve been there.”
Teresa Blackmon, 56, stopped at the food pantry last week. She received a box filled with chicken leg quarters, canned cranberries, brownie mix and more.
Blackmon said she and her husband both have health issues and are unable to work right now. “It’s a help,” she said of the food pantry. “Anything is better than nothing.”
Blackmon said she has been using coupons and looking for reduced-price food at grocery stores. Like Hardin, she said she tries not to let her gas tank get too low. “Basically, you’ve got to fill it up to maintain.”
Gas prices are likely making it harder for some people to get to the food pantry in Lumberton, Hardin said. Robeson County Church and Community Center launched a mobile food pantry in April.
The mobile operation sets up every third Thursday of the month in the town of Fairmont, said Brianna Goodwin, executive director of RCCC. The organization plans to partner with other towns as well.
Goodwin said the rising cost of housing is exacerbating financial hardships. The median home price sale in Robeson County was $140,000 in April, up from about $105,000 in the spring of 2019, according to Realtor.com. A “fair market rent price” for a two-bedroom home in Robeson County is now about $725, up from $679 in 2019, according to the website rentdata.org.
“It’s just impossible for (families) to pay that rate for rent and to pay for gas,” Goodwin said.
Scraping by – again
Along with hauling scrap metal, Bowman said he has been mowing lawns and repairing cars to make ends meet.
Hardin is looking for a second job. She used to supplement her income by working at a local gaming center, but she said it closed in March. She hopes to find work at another gaming center or at a manufacturing facility.
They both said they are waiting and hoping for prices to come down. That’s all they can do, they said.
On paper, the economy looks good, experts say. North Carolina’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in May was 3.4% – a far cry from the rate of 13.5% in April 2020 during the height of the pandemic. (Counties in southeastern North Carolina typically have higher unemployment rates. Scotland County, for example, had a jobless rate of 7.29% in April – the second highest rate in the state.)
During the Great Recession, which spanned from 2007 to 2009, Bowman said he got laid off from his manufacturing job in Texas. He had roommates to split the bills, he said, and he found work as a day laborer.
Now, he said, he’s trying to scrape by once again.
Bowman recalled stories from his grandparents, who lived through the Great Depression. “It still makes me thankful for what we do have,” he said. “At least we’re not out here starving to death – at least not yet.”
Hardin said she is also thankful – for her job at RCCC for the past 13 years, for her home in Lumberton and for her grandson who she raises.
“As long as my rent is paid, my bills are paid and my grandson is taken care of, that’s all that matters,” she said.
Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem