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Low wages and food insecurity in SC: A perfect storm of inflationary struggle

A food distribution box
Don Craig | Government Communica
For low-income workers in South Carolina, the effects of high inflation on grocery prices is making food access more difficult.

For the past few months, it seems that high gas and grocery prices have been somewhat of a shared trauma within communities across the country. It’s a symptom of inflation, which has raised prices by roughly 8.5%, the highest hike the U.S. has seen in decades.

It makes it tougher for anyone to get by, but hits low-income workers the hardest.

Sandrica Heins is a Columbia mother working to support her two young children and an elderly relative. She knows, all too well, the pain inflation has put on her pockets.

“Being able to have access to food and transportation because of rising prices, it’s been difficult,” Heins says.

Dealing with inflation has been difficult not just for Heins, but for the 32% of South Carolinians that also work low-income jobs, making $35,000 or less per year.

The question on their minds: when can we expect some relief?

John McDermott, an emeritus professor of economics at the University of South Carolina, says it likely won’t be any time soon.

“I don’t think this is going to go away [within the next six months]...there’s no easy answer for someone with a low income and inflation,” says McDermott.

Though there may be no easy answer, is it possible for those living on a low income to hunker down until prices start falling again?

For those living in South Carolina, there’s no easy answer to that question, either.

MIT has an online calculator that adds up the cost of living (e.g. rent, groceries, transportation, etc.) for those in every county of every state across the U.S. The numbers show that, in South Carolina’s biggest counties, you’d need to make an average of around $28,336, after taxes, just to be able to live. That’s about twice the minimum wage, which earns you $15,080 per year.

That living wage requirement, however, only accounts for one person. Some people, like Sandrica Heins, are supporting a whole family with a similar income.

“I’m working check to check,” Heins says. “When you work check to check, you’ve got to choose between ‘is this bill going to get paid?’ or ‘ am I going to put food on the table this week?’”

The good news is that Heins, and other low-income workers, is part of a low-cost food service program that helps put food on the table. It’s called FoodShare, which provides fruits and vegetables to those that can’t afford them at a grocery store, or can’t access one.

The bad news is that rising grocery prices are giving FoodShare food struggles.

“We haven’t been able to expand our deliveries to some areas…there are now some items that are beyond our ability to purchase because the price has gone up,” says Gordon Schell, FoodShare’s marketing director.

Rising prices are causing low-income assistance programs like FoodShare to provide less help at a time where more people are in need. It’s a problem stemming from inflationary issues like supply shortages and price hikes, which affects small businesses and nonprofits around South Carolina.

Frank Knapp, the president of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, has picked up on the pattern.

“Small businesses are [now] paying more money for their goods they may be selling, for supplies they need, paying more for labor, paying more for gas,” Knapp says.

Inflation isn’t just causing small businesses to pay more. The International Monetary Fund reports that people lose purchasing power in periods of high inflation. That means it becomes harder for people to pay for what they typically buy.

For low-income workers seeking assistance, that may be one of FoodShare’s produce boxes, which cost around $15.Some people, though, are making just enough to not qualify for benefits through SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but not enough to cope with rising grocery costs.

“We have participants that are struggling to make every dollar go as far as they can,” says Schell.

However, that struggle has motivated some people around the state to offer help. Mimi Draft, president of Columbia’s Hyatt Park neighborhood, is one of those people, helping to fight food insecurity in Columbia.

“It’s very important to me to make sure that people [in my community] have access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Draft says.

Those efforts are inspiring Sandrica Heins to help her own neighborhood.

“That’s part of being in the community. Once you know something, share it so other people can access it,” says Heins.

Finn Carlin was an 2022 ETV Endowment intern working with SC Public Radio to produce news content. He is now an occasional news contributor.