Report: Working Iowa households struggling to meet basic needs

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The latest Iowa Policy Project Cost of Living in Iowa report, released earlier this month, found one in six, or nearly 100,000, Iowa working households struggle to meet their basic needs. According to, a single individual in Clay County with health insurance from an employer has an annual total basic expense of $20,545, a single parent with one child is at $35,349, and a family with two working parents and two children to be $54,085.

"The need varies from situation to situation," Upper Des Moines outreach specialist Dawn Dahm said. "Sometimes, it is an ongoing thing such as a health condition, so people have temporary loss of wages. We see a lot of people who are working that make just enough to cover their bills so any car repair or any unexpected expenses could easily throw them into crisis."

Dahm noted UDMO provided services to approximately 600 households locally within the last six months, which she said is normal for this time of the year. She also pointed out the food pantry has been low due to children staying home from school in the summer and added recent flooding has impacted demand for services.

"I would say their rent, utilities and food would be some of the top things that fall under basic needs," Dahm said. "Upper Des Moines goes by the federal poverty guidelines and people bring in pay stubs, tax returns, social security documentation and child support documentation to verify eligibility. Need ebbs and flows, it depends on if there is a lay-off somewhere. Sometimes there is a cut in food stamps and we see our numbers increase."

UMDO offers a variety of programs such as their food pantry, weatherization and heating assistance in the winter, budget counseling and referral services. The Spencer faith community also works together through Grand Avenue Community Outreach and the Spencer Pastors Association to provide everything from school supplies for children to transportation assistance for those in need.

"How nice is it that a family might go to the grocery store and intentionally pull off some food and put it in their cart knowing that they are going to give that to Upper Des Moines," said Rev. Wendy Van Tassell, chair of the Spencer Pastors Association. "Let's buy a bag of rice for us and a bag of rice for the people of Upper Des Moines. Thinking through that helps give kids the ownership of helping."

Van Tasell noted a major frustration for people in need can be finding the proper channels to receive help. The Spencer Pastors Association works to streamline the process by coordinating with other service organizations in the community. GACO also partners with organizations such as Hope Haven, Atlas, Seasons Center, Victory House and Compass Pointe to provide services such as temporary housing, food and clothing, as well as medical and dental care.

"There is really not a common theme among those people we serve," GACO board member Kevin Brown said. "It is anything from a woman in an abusive relationship to someone who has been living in their car because they couldn't make their bills and got put out on the street. There are even people who get out of jail and don't know where to go. They have been in for a short amount of time and don't have any place to go. The biggest need I have heard from local agencies are people who are ready to go to a treatment center for substance abuse and there are no beds in the treatment center right now. They need a place to go for a couple of weeks and I would like to see them come here."

Brown said GACO is currently seeking volunteers and financial donations. Volunteers can help by sorting and organizing clothes and food as well as taking a leadership position to help coordinate the organization's outreach efforts.

Van Tassell said developing a trusting relationship, where those in need feel comfortable asking for help, is an essential step before assessing an individual's need.

"When you are going through a hard time, sometimes, it is really difficult to admit the pain and the way you are being challenged," Van Tassell said. "You are not necessarily going to be transparent with that need and ask for assistance. I think that is an obstacle for us. We might not know how to connect with someone. Everybody is proud. Nobody likes to ask for help. Being emotionally vulnerable and being concerned about how somebody might judge you because you are in a particular position, I don't think we meet that need very easily."

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