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All I want for Christmas 

The recession is over, but some locals still feel the pinch

The Great Recession officially ended in 2009.

But it may not feel that way for all of us. Does it seem like more people are standing on corners with cardboard signs? Are a lot of people still struggling to pay the bills? Are jobs, in many sectors, scarce?

Politicians will tell you the local economy is improving. Take El Paso County Board of County Commissioner Chair Amy Lathen, who sounded quite upbeat at her recent State of the Region address. Yes, there are some encouraging signs, from increased sales-tax receipts and more registrations for new cars to rising home prices. But other statistics paint a more bleak picture, suggesting the folks at the bottom of the economic ladder struggle to climb out of poverty.

The data presented in the following pages provide a visual guide to our local economy, and how it's affecting local people. The upshot? Some are doing better. Still, others are doing worse.

As El Paso County Department of Human Services Deputy Executive Director Christopher Garvin points out, the number food stamp (now called SNAP for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) cases in the county has more than doubled since 2008. About 10 percent of El Paso County residents are now receiving help from the program.

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Anecdotally, Rebecca Jacobs, the county's employment and family support director, says the struggling families she works with don't often rely on welfare (now called TANF for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). They're usually working people who use food stamps to supplement income from their jobs.

"I think the general public believes that the majority of families who are receiving food assistance are not working, and that's just not true," she says. "They are working; they just aren't making enough. And we hear from families that their hours have been reduced."

Rebecca Michael, the county's economic assistance manager, adds that households on food assistance in the county bring in a total of about $17 million a month in income, either from jobs or other sources like Social Security or Veterans Administration payments.

The county service providers explain that clients often struggle to find higher-paying blue-collar work. Like most cities, Colorado Springs is home to higher-paying white-collar jobs, such as those in the technology sector, and very low-paying jobs, such as those at fast food restaurants. But, Jacobs says, those low-paying jobs don't meet the cost of living here, especially as rent prices rise. That often leads families to share rentals with other families or live in dangerous neighborhoods.

And even if a family manages to get slightly ahead through those means, Jacobs says she hears all the time from others whose savings have been exhausted by a single stroke of bad luck — such as a broken-down car.

Constant economic struggle can affect families in a variety of ways, which is why the data here include figures for child abuse. Both Jacobs and Garvin say they've heard horrifying stories of children being killed or severely abused as a result of being left with untrustworthy child-care providers, such as friends or relatives. Often, they say, single parents especially do not have access to reliable childcare when they go to work or a doctor's appointment, and childcare is often prohibitively expensive.

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"Poverty really affects all of us, in that poverty equals some social issues that occur like substance abuse or mental health, unemployment, child abuse, child education," Garvin says. "It affects every single one of us whether you think it does or not."

Despite the gloomy numbers, the county service providers say, they are working with community partners to stretch limited resources to help people out of poverty. And they do have success stories. Some families have been able to find good-paying work and lift themselves out of poverty. One county partner is Discover Goodwill of Southern and Western Colorado, which provides job assistance and education that go hand-in-hand with benefit programs like TANF. The three locals featured here are former Goodwill clients who now work for the organization.

"We do celebrate when families come back and tell us I got that great job," Jacobs says.

"We are very optimistic about the things that we do here and we certainly don't feel hopeless. There are days when it feels like we're drowning, but we keep moving forward and we keep trying to be creative and think outside the box."

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John Staib, 52

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After four years in the military, including service in Desert Shield/Storm in the early '90s, John built a career in the insurance industry. He even ran his own agency for a short period. Around 2004, he began working in call centers instead. For a while, he says, he thought he had the perfect personality for the job.

"It takes a certain animal to work in them, and I was that animal for about 15 years," he says.

But as time wore on, he struggled.

"You either get burnt out on them really fast, or they don't work out," he says, "or the pay is not enough to survive."

Still, for the most part, John was able to support his wife and four kids, making the rent on their home with the help of Medicaid and food stamps. There was a period in 2010 when he was between jobs and the family had to go on TANF, but they bounced back.

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Then, this January, John found himself unemployed. Months passed. The family's landlord was a friend who let them slide on rent. Other friends paid their electric bill.

Everywhere he went — the grocery store, the library — John asked if they were hiring. So when he had to take an employment class with Goodwill to keep his food-stamp payments from being cut, he asked the staff if Goodwill had any job openings. He was thrilled to finally hear the word "yes."

Since he could no longer afford Internet service at home, John went to the Goodwill business center two days later to fill out online applications. There, he recognized a staff member. The man had worked with him years before at a call center.

John's old coworker agreed to be a reference and pointed out an opening John could apply for at Goodwill. John had his first interview a week later. He didn't get that job, because the staff decided his background made him a better fit for a different program. A week later, he successfully interviewed for the other program.

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On May 5, John joined Goodwill as a case manager, helping TANF recipients. He says he loves the work, and thinks his own hardships help him relate to his clients.

"I've been in their shoes and sat in their chairs," he says, "and that can help them relax a bit, that I've been there, done that."

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Darlene McCracken, 31

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Darlene was born to a mentally ill mother and a father who struggled to put food on the table. When her parents split, she was raised by her mom.

"I can remember going and getting food stamps with her, and her being on cash assistance, and that was just life for me," she remembers. "That's just how I thought that it worked."

Darlene never finished high school, instead working at gas stations and fast-food restaurants, and in retail.

"And then I had kids and I didn't know what to do," Darlene remembers. "I was, 'Where do I get day care? Who do I leave them with? Who can I trust?' And so I would work this job for a little while, but then I didn't have anywhere to drop my kids off, I didn't have anyone to watch my kids. So I would lose that job."

Darlene shuffled from job to job, and relied on food stamps. She didn't want to be on TANF. But from 2008 to 2010, she spiraled. She was evicted. She lost her car. The father of her kids went to jail — twice. In fact, both of her children were born while their father was in jail.

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Darlene moved back in with her mom for a while.

"I can remember the night [around 2012] that my oldest son woke up and he was crying and he said, 'I'm hungry,'" she says. "He was really hungry. We didn't have any food. I can remember I went through my cupboards and my cabinets and I had some bread. So I made him some toast. And the next day, I was like, 'I've got to do something.'"

Darlene decided to go on TANF, and started attending the employment classes that are a part of the program. Then she got a job. She quit the program, figuring her problem was solved.

But it wasn't. As usual, the hours didn't allow her to care for her kids, and it didn't take long for her to get fired. She went back to bouncing around. Then, in the fall of 2014, Darlene talked with a friend who had gone all the way through TANF's employment classes. She had a great job and was doing well. Darlene decided to try TANF again, and this time, she completed the classwork.

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"I really listened to what the teacher had to say, and he taught me about money management, so even though I only get a little bit of money, I can make it go really far," she says. "And he taught me to deal with stressful situations in the workplace."

Soon, she was working a subsidized job as a janitor. It allowed her to take care of her kids, who are now ages 5 and 7. Since then, Darlene has been hired by Goodwill to work in shipping and books for its online store. The hours are much better, and the wages meet her needs. Plus, she says, having a steady job has helped her on a deeper level. As she puts it, "I got my confidence back."

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Alayne Kelly, 28

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Alayne was raised in a strict family and was eager to get out of the house when she was a teenager.

She dropped out of high school her senior year, got her GED, and began eight years of working as a waitress. Eventually, she went to community college, where she earned an associate degree in general studies, and came within a few credits of earning another in mathematics. Alayne didn't have much, but she didn't depend on anyone, and she liked that.

"It was just me," she remembers. "I lived in a studio apartment downtown, with fixed rent and fixed utilities. So I was perfectly fine with that."

In 2011, she quit waitressing and transferred to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, hoping to earn a bachelor's degree. Initially, she supported herself by working in car sales, but it was too hard to attend school at the same time. After a year, she began working at a grocery store so she could continue her classes. Life seemed to be going well. Then she met a man.

"That was my downfall," she says. "I was seriously an independent person — I did everything on my own and I had no problem doing it. And then I met him, and I relied too much on him. I put pretty much all my eggs in the basket."

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Slowly, the relationship began chipping away at her life. She moved in with him, losing her cheap studio and giving away most of her belongings. She stopped going to school and quit her job so that she could care for his child. Her boyfriend was becoming domineering, she says, and arguments spun out of control. Then she found herself pregnant. She got her grocery-store job back briefly, but got laid off two days before her maternity leave. At that point, she felt completely isolated.

"I thought I was nothing," she remembers. "I got told I was nothing. Eventually, I just got to a point where I was living in the bedroom to be away from people."

Alayne's friends told her she needed to leave her boyfriend, but she thought she needed him. Then her boyfriend reunited with his ex-wife.

Alayne went to live in a spare room in her mom's house. She had a new baby, no money, no job, and very few possessions with which to start over. "That was my breaking point," she says.

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Alayne decided to go on TANF and asked county staff what she could do to get her life back together. At first, she couldn't get a job because her baby was so young that child care programs wouldn't accept her.

"My [case manager], she was amazing," Alayne says. "She let me know that even though I thought I was broken down, she thought I actually had more going for me than other people. So she kept giving me that little bit of confidence."

When her baby got a little older, Alayne applied for a job at Goodwill and was hired to work in a program that assists TANF clients. She's since been promoted to job developer, helping TANF clients find steady work. Her daughter is in child care.

Alayne still lives with her mom, but she's saving money so she can move out early next year. There are a few more hurdles to get over. She has bad credit, which makes getting a rental difficult. And she doesn't have the regular household items she needs. But coworkers have been slowly helping her acquire the necessities — telling her about sales, and cutting coupons for her.

Alayne says she's enjoying being a mom and building a better future for her daughter, who's now 14 months old. And she says it's been enlightening to work with other TANF clients — some whom are willing to do anything to improve their circumstances, others who aren't there yet.

"It's fun when I get people who give me every excuse in the book that I went through," she says. "I know if I went through everything they're saying — if it can be done, it can be done."

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