Saturday, October 02, 2010

In the midnight hour: living paycheck to paycheck

For all too many families literally living from paycheck to paycheck, the economic recession is not even close to easing, much less being over - despite what expert economists are telling us.

As fashionable as it has become to bash large chain stores and supermarkets, they have become lifelines for struggling families that can literally be counted on in the midnight hour. (GW)

These Families Shop When Aid Arrives

HOUSTON—At midnight on the first of the month, a scene unfolds at many Wal-Mart Stores Inc. sites that underscores the deep financial strains that many low-income American consumers still face.

Parking lots come to life after 11 p.m. as customers start to stream into the stores, cramming their shopping carts full of milk, infant formula and other necessities.

Then at midnight, when the government replenishes their electronic-benefit accounts with their monthly allotments of food stamps, nutritional grants for mothers with babies or other aid for needy families, they head for the registers.

"We're not starving or anything, but we come every month at 11:55," said Tyrel Fogle, 26 years old, early Friday morning as he loaded a cart with frozen food at a Wal-Mart here on the northwestern edge of the nation's fourth largest city.

Mr. Fogle said he had just found work as a washer at a glass company after months of fruitless searching. "We have enough to survive," volunteered his pregnant girlfriend, Brittany Cummings, 21. "But not much more."

The midnight scenes, which also play out at Kroger Co., the nation's largest supermarket chain, and other 24-hour stores, indicate that many Americans are still living from pay period to pay period, unemployed or underemployed two years after the recession took hold.

"If you really think about it, the only reason someone gets out there in the middle of the night and buys baby formula is that they need it, and they have been waiting for it," Bill Simon, the head of Wal-Mart's U.S. store business, said at a Goldman Sachs conference last month.

Wal-Mart executives have cited the midnight rush for the past year as evidence that stressed consumers are stretching the limits of the "paycheck cycle." The company hasn't disclosed exact figures, but it says purchases made with electronic-benefits cards have surged in the past two years.

Participation in the federal food-stamp program swelled from 26 million Americans in 2007 to more than 33 million last year, and it continues to surge. As of June, the latest figures available, more than 41.2 million people were receiving monthly assistance, which averaged $133.36 a person.

Similarly, the U.S. Agriculture Department's supplemental nutrition grant program for women, infants and children, known as WIC, saw participation grow beyond 9.3 million last year, up from 8.7 million two years ago, government figures show.

Many customers in the Houston Wal-Mart during the wee hours Friday were young mothers whose WIC money had just kicked in on their Texas Lone Star benefits cards.

"The real troubling part to us is why [they are] out shopping at that hour," Dave Dillon, chief executive of Kroger, said in an interview, adding that the supermarket giant adjusted its shelf-stocking patterns after witnessing the same phenomenon as Wal-Mart. "We clearly see an increase," he said.

Wal-Mart declined to disclose details, but it has also responded to the early-morning spike on the first of the month. It increases staffing and ensures that its shelves are stocked with the necessities customers are seeking, a spokesman said, though he stressed that the number of shoppers involved at midnight is relatively minor compared with peak periods such as weekends.

"We know our customers are living paycheck to paycheck as they continue to struggle as a result of the economy," said Wal-Mart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez.

Government assistance helps Ieshia Parker, a 26-year-old single mother who was filling her cart with Cream of Wheat cereal and Gerber's baby food, provide for her nine-month-old daughter, Treasure.


She said her hours as a customer-service representative at a call-in center were recently reduced to about six a week. "Nothing for me, all for her," she added as she hunted through the baby-food jars. "When it comes to stuff she needs, I can't wait."

For Pedro Yanez, a 25-year-old beer deliveryman at a nearby Anheuser Busch plant, the aid helps him feed his wife and two children on wages of $10.85 an hour.

"It's been a long time since I got a raise or cost of living [increase]," said Mr. Yanez as his three-year-old son, Jayson, sitting in the cart in a Spiderman t-shirt, volunteered that he wanted a Halloween mask.

For Nakeisha Kaine, 18, who is helping her mother raise her teenage brother Sirterryon, food stamps are putting meals on the table as she pursues her education in cosmetology.

"We come early, because sometimes it's too many people and you gotta wait in line," she said as she and her brother pushed carts filled with frozen food and snacks. Sirterryon, a seventh grader, had school in the morning, but they came at midnight anyway, hoping to beat the crowds.

Then, two hours later, the rush was over, and the Wal-Mart parking lot was once again relatively deserted on a humid Houston night.

—Timothy W. Martin contributed to this article.

Write to Miguel Bustillo at


Post a Comment

<< Home