Pinched by steel layoffs, Pittsburgh spins a safety net of last resort

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Monthly income: $1,000. Monthly expenses: $1,600. The bottom line for unemployed steelworker Wes Christie and his wife, Karen, is a $600 deficit every month.

They juggle bills, fend off calls from creditors - seven on a recent evening - and try to provide at least one decent meal a day for their two daughters. They're also on the lookout for any hint that the steel furnaces will be stoked again, bringing the first steady work Mr. Christie has had in two years.

The Christie's income-expense gap is typical for thousands of unemployed workers in this region, where idled smokestacks line the steep valleys of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers. Stripped of their paychecks, the so-called new poor have depended almost exclusively on unemployment compensation , which amounts to half their normal income but no more than $205 a week - a figure dwarfed by lingering bills of a previous, more prosperous life style.

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But the Christies have been able to put food on the table, keep the utilities hooked up, hang on to their home, and save their property - television, furniture, automobile - from repossession.

How have they done it?

They've been caught, if temporarily and rather precariously, in a safety net knit out of necessity. A swell of community support has resulted in the creation of food banks and voucher systems as well as corporate and union payroll deductions to help feed the unemployed and provide free legal and medical services and hot lines for the jobless. One troubleshooting group even pressured the Allegheny County Sheriff to postpone foreclosure sales on the homes of the unemployed.

The growing statistical bulge of unemployment - 10.8 percent nationwide and as high as 30 percent in some areas here - has posed problems too new and immediate to be addressed by government aid. But from the tall downtown headquarters of unions and management to suburban church parishes and the fading storefronts of local businesses, the community has recognized that the plight of the unemployed is their plight, too.

''You take away this large of a block of people, kill their buying power, and it kills all business. . . ,'' explains John Lester Jr., manager of the metro-south office of the Pennsylvania State Employment Service. (Witness local newspaper advertising lineage - a gauge of business vitality. The largest papers here are no thicker than a single section of most metropolitan newspapers.)

The Mon (Monongahela) Valley Unemployed Committee best characterizes the atmosphere of collective support. The group, which includes more than a thousand unemployed blue- and white-collar workers, has accomplished more through the sheer strength of their numbers than through political savvy.

The group was responsible for the pressure brought to bear on Allegheny County Sheriff Eugene Coon last month when he imposed a moratorium on foreclosure sales of owner-occupied homes. The group studied lending procedures for several months before showing up en masse at foreclosure sales.

''To get a sheriff to do an illegal act . . . captures imaginations, helps them (group members) break out of sitting at home depressed'' and gives the group momentum, explains committee chairman Barney Oursler.

Sheriff Coon claims his action was not illegal and bases this on the philosophy that the area has suffered an economic disaster on a par with a natural disaster.

As a result of the controversy, ACTION-Housing Inc., a consulting agency which advises city and county governments, set up a $200,000 loan fund to help educate borrowers about how they can renegotiate their mortgages, and, as a last resort, to help them make payments.

Other programs for the jobless:

* More than 200 food banks operated by churches and unions in western Pennsylvania provide free groceries to those whose unemployment benefits have expired.

The director of the distribution center for Johnstown-area food pantries notes a sharp increase in applications, adding that many people not used to hard times perceive themselves as more needy than they really are.

Food vouchers are also used. In the Aliquippa area, for example, where only 2 ,500 of 8,000 United Steelworkers members are on the job, the union provides $25 food vouchers to more than 700 families. Working union members have put up $50, 000 in payroll deductions, and local grocers donate $2.50 on every voucher.

* Free medical service is offered in Johnstown as part of the St. Vincent De Paul Society's ''Touch'' program. Claimed to be the first such program, it combines free services from doctors and drugs donated by pharmaceutical companies.

''The worst thing is to force people to make the decision of whether to pay the rent, feed the kids, or go to the doctor,'' says Dr. William Hirsch. He adds that more than 50 percent of the community's doctors responded to his request for help.

* Job-referral programs by broadcasters offer the jobless a chance to advertise their services for free.

* Corporate support, especially from steel management, long considered an adversary of blue-collar workers, is not especially strong. But Jones & Laughlin Steel reports its salaried employees have given $15,000 in payroll deductions toward union food funds.

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