SHERIDAN — While working with citizens and transients in Sheridan County through Community Connections, Brooke Kaszas recognized a gap in services for an unassuming group — middle-class Sheridan residents. Several factors contribute to financial instability of this particular group of the population, some of them being cyclical spending and others an inability to keep up with the cost of living.
Kaszas served more than 300 households in her one year managing Community Connections in Sheridan. Of those families, a good amount came in specifically seeking financial aid for items like utility bills that skyrocket during the winter months.
Kaszas also mentioned LIEAP, or Wyoming’s Low Income Energy Assistance Program, which administers benefits based on need for home energy costs through the Wyoming Department of Family Services. While there may be some, Kaszas doubted that most of the people she worked with were cheating the system by asking for financial assistance.
“They live with such a small budget that they rob Peter to pay Paul any place they can, and that creates a systemic, constant need that they’re never able to get on top of,” Kaszas said.
Sheridan’s cost of living, according to Sperling’s Best Places website, sits just above the U.S. average at 102, where the national average on everything is measured at 100. Groceries, health, housing and median home costs have higher than the national average, and utilities and transportation costs below the national average. Wyoming overall lines up exactly with U.S. averages at 100 in overall cost of living. The state as a whole goes above national averages in grocery and housing costs, but Wyoming dips under the national average in utilities and transportation.
A Harvard Business Review study tracked every dollar 235 U.S. households spent for a year and found widespread financial vulnerability. In the study, every household had at least one worker and none were among the poorest or richest in their communities. The households were also regionally and ethnically diversified.
While tracking, researchers recognized volatile incomes and expenditures among families. Incomes were more unstable if families relied on incomes from commissions, tips and hourly work with fluctuating schedules. Expenditures came from emergency costs like car repairs, sickness, school bills and home repairs. Researchers also credit national rises in health care and education costs as areas where low- to middle-class families take a financial hit.
Kaszas saw families “doing everything the right way” and still coming up short.
A USA Today article credited rising rent and gasoline costs without a rise in wages for tightening budgets for households. The article quoted Union Bank of Switzerland credit strategist Stephen Caprio saying stronger wage growth is needed to allow stressed households to keep pace with higher rents and anticipated increases in borrowing costs.
Even the definition “middle-class” families is shrinking, with middle-income households falling from 61 percent in 1971 to 50 percent in 2015, according to Pew Research Center, which defines middle income as a four-person family making $48,347 annually.
Whether poor budgeting or a true lack of ability to remain financially stable, the need for programs specifically providing aid to double-income families still exists in Sheridan, a place that sits slightly above the state and national averages for cost of living.