Catholic Family Services seeing an increase in hardship

  • September 2, 2010
Debt doomTORONTO - A growing number of Canadian families are finding themselves on the losing end of the global financial meltdown.

At Catholic Family Services of Peel and Dufferin, counsellors have seen a 177-per-cent increase in the number of clients whose finances have fallen apart. In 2009-2010 the agency saw a 173-per-cent increase in couples and individuals at its door because of unemployment, housing or related issues.

At Catholic Family Services of Toronto, 60 per cent of families seeking help have a family income of less than $30,000. Last year for every new client who was employed another was unemployed and more than a quarter of its employable clients are now unemployed.

“The number of unemployed people coming to Catholic Family Services is up. The number of people earning $10,000-or-less is up. And the number of clients unable to pay a fee is up,” said Catholic Family Services of Toronto therapist Virginia Koehler. “That kind of goes with people just having financial problems.”

“It becomes another stressor on maintaining a peaceful, harmonious family life situation,” said Catholic Family Services of Peel and Dufferin therapist Sharon Ramsay.

In the first quarter of 2010 the Canadian household debt-to-income ratio increased to 147 per cent of annual income, up from 144.9 per cent, as reported by Statistics Canada, in the last quarter of 2009.

While family debt grows, family incomes have stagnated. The median after-tax income of two-parent families with children rose 0.8 per cent between 2007 and 2008, while median market income for two-parent families with children rose by just $100 over the year, from $80,600 to $80,700.

The recent unemployment numbers show a relatively healthy 7.9-per-cent unemployment rate in June, but that doesn’t mean families are surviving unemployment. On average it takes 20 weeks to find a job, very close to a high for the last decade, according to a BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research report. Manufacturing continues to lose jobs, shedding another 10,200 positions in June.  Part-time, seasonal, contract work and self-employment are all on the rise.

“It would not be uncommon for us to encounter families who have really maxed out their lines of credit, overdrafts. They’re really, really in dire straights,” said  Ramsay.

In its annual survey of family finances the Vanier Institute of the Family found a 50-per-cent increase in mortgages running 90 days or more in arrears in 2009 compared to 2008. The number of people at least three months behind in credit card payments increased 40 per cent.

Home ownership is more and more a gamble, according to Roger Sauvé of People Patterns Consulting, author of the Vanier Institute’s annual “The Current State of Canadian Family Finances” study. For 20 years the average price of a house was 3.7 times household earnings. In February this year house prices averaged five times household earnings and real estate had risen to account for 48 per cent of the net worth of Canadian households, the highest it has been in 20 years.

Sauvé worries that families are being hoisted on petards they bought with their Visa cards. Easy access to credit is working some dark magic on marriages, as husbands and wives fall into what he calls “financial infidelity.”

“It’s getting more and more difficult to know what your partner is doing,” he said.

“When you’re dealing with separations, a lot comes out that is hidden — or gets hidden so that no one knows about it,” said Koehler.

Catholic Family Services of Toronto has been working with parishes to get couples some pre-crisis help through support groups for the unemployed. An eight-week program called Helping Our Families — Job Loss Unemployment Program covers everything from stress management and budgeting through resumé writing and networking.

In Brampton and Mississauga, Catholic Family Services has resorted to walk-in clinics to help couples with everything from depression to family violence. But the numbers of families in crisis is pushing the agency beyond its ability to cope, said executive director Mark Creedon.

“You can sprint for a while, but you can’t sprint for five miles,” he said.

A little counselling can go a long way for a couple drowning in debt and on the verge of breaking up. It’s all about getting couples to identify what really matters to them, said Ramsay.

“(Then) they can start making some decisions that are based upon what they need and want, and not so much about what their neighbour or the television or the Internet says,” said Ramsay.

It’s a bit rash to blame greed and materialism for the heavy debt loads, said Sauvé. The problem is that life has become less affordable for the generation that’s trying to build and maintain a family. Everything from housing to food to health care costs more, he said.

“People under 45, especially in the last four or five years, have had to purchase (a home) maybe for the first time. They’re now trapped with big mortgages,” Sauvé said.

But lining up real need with real income is very hard to do in our culture, said Ramsay. People are still keeping up with the Joneses, living the way society and the media tell them they should rather than how their bank balance and income dictate.

“Money has multiple meanings for people, whether it’s that sense of well-being is how much money is in the bank or whether it’s about what you can buy, or a combination,” said Ramsay. “It’s sometimes hard to talk about those meanings in a couple relationship because you don’t know them until somebody crosses the line.”

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