Archives For Economy


If approved, deal would not tie future increases to inflation

 


Electric customers to pay millions for ice storm repair

Craig Smith

AUGUSTA, Maine —The massive damage caused by the Christmas week ice storm likely means millions of dollars in repair costs will be passed onto Maine ratepayers.

Officials tell the Portland Press Herald that the ice storm is expected to be deemed an “extraordinary storm event,” allowing utilities to seek regulatory approval of an offset from ratepayers to recoup recovery costs.

It’ll take time for CMP and Bangor Hydro Electric Co. to tally expenses associated with the storm that knocked out power to 160,000 Maine homes and businesses.

Bangor Hydro set a target for completing the restoration effort of New Year’s Day, just a day before another winter storm is set to move into the state.

 


Home (and hungry) for the holidays: Families struggle to feed kids during school break

Jonathan Adams / for NBC News

Michael Taylor, Jr., 12, of Abingdon, Va., gives thanks with his brothers and grandmother, Elizabeth Salyers, for the meal they received at a local food pantry.

By Nona Willis Aronowitz, NBC News contributor

The snow was blowing sideways in New York City last Saturday, but parents still streamed in to New York Common Pantry, some leading as many as four or five children by the hand while they sat with volunteers and chose their food on an iPad.

“I’m here to stock up,” said pantry client Theresa Garcia. In one week, Garcia’s three children, who attend public school, would be home for an eight-day holiday break, a long stretch of going without the two free meals they eat in school every day.

The East Harlem pantry was Garcia’s second stop for supplies that day; she already visited a food bank near the shelter where her family is staying in East New York, more than an hour away on the subway. “I also had to give my church a heads-up that these next weeks I’ll need extra help,” she said. “You hit it from all angles.”

Garcia’s kids are among 24 million American children who qualify for free or reduced lunch and breakfast at school—48 percent of all public school students. For many kids, those meals are the only ones they will eat all day. That all changes during school holidays, when the burden falls on low-income parents to provide three meals a day. The United States Department of Agriculture provides food assistance to many families during summer break, but there’s no similar infrastructure in place for the end-of-year holidays, when kids are home for up to two weeks.

And they have healthy appetites.

“Especially with boys, they’re never, ever full,” says Elizabeth Salyers, who’s raising her three young grandsons in Abingdon, Va. Salyers had been getting by on social security and the spousal benefits from her late husband, a disabled veteran, when the kids came to live with her in 2009. But four years later, she says her “funds are slowly dissolving.” She has had to rely on the Abingdon Soup Kitchen and other programs around town in order to feed the kids. It’ll be doubly difficult to keep the boys’ bellies full until January 8th, when they go back to school.

Jonathan Adams / for NBC News

Elizabeth Salyers, 71, looks through a box of vegetables at the Harvest Home Kitchen in Abingdon, Va., with grandchildren Dashaun and Ector Taylor.

“You just take what’s available, and you can stretch it 50 different ways if you have to,” Salyers said. She prepares hearty dishes that “expand when you cook ‘em,” like oatmeal and spaghetti. On days the boys sleep late, she breathes a sigh of relief; she can get away with serving them breakfast, a snack, and supper.

Kathy Underhill, the executive director of Hunger Free Colorado, is well aware of this annual problem facing low-income families of school-aged children. “What the holidays mean is that families already on a razor-thin margin have to struggle even further,” she said. In her state, 10 percent of households—about 511,000 families—are currently on SNAP benefits, and another 390,000 more are eligible.

Mildred Floyd of Golden, Colo., is the head of one of those families. Even with just one teenage son at home during break, “the impact on my budget is astronomical,” she said. “[My son] is in his comfort zone, sitting in front of the TV, so sometimes he eats even a little more than usual.”

For Floyd, who is unemployed, it’s not just the money that poses a problem but the logistics.

“During the holidays, you have to be able to get to whatever site that’s giving food,” she said. “You have to get creative. You have to drive all over town.” During school breaks, filling the gap of school meals becomes an elaborate dance of research, transportation, and sign-up sheets.

“Families start mixing and matching with other community resources when they don’t have school lunch, but with overworked parents and bus routes being cut, this isn’t always possible,” said Peggy Halderman, founder of the Golden Backpack Program, which tries to simplify parents’ holiday juggling acts.

Every week, the program sends 588 local students—including Floyd’s son—home from school with enough food to feed a child over the weekend. During the holidays, students get a “double backpack,” stocked with supplies for four days. This year, another group at the Rotary Club of Golden, of which Halderman is a member, packed 80 boxes for a similar Holiday Food Box Project and dropped them off at the local elementary school.

Jonathan Adams / for NBC News

Ector Taylor, 9, checks to see how he measures up to his grandmother, who often worries if she can provide enough for three growing boys.

Some programs across the country go a step further and maintain children’s school meal routines during the holiday season. Kids Unlimited in Medford, Ore., which runs an academics-focused afterschool program during the school year, offers a 10-hour-a-day enrichment program for elementary-, middle-, and high school students during holiday breaks, on site at the students’ schools. The holiday program includes meals through Sodexo, which gets reimbursed by the USDA, said Tom Cole, director of Kids Unlimited.

“Being able to feed kids is part of creating a level playing field, because kids can’t learn or focus when they’re hungry,” Cole said. “We keep that going [during holidays] to take the pressure off families.”

These programs strive to make a difference, yet some who staff them are indignant that the government and public schools aren’t doing more to help. Kathy Underhill points out that the SNAP program, or food stamps, usually picks up the slack when kids are out of school, but with cuts that kicked in November 1, lots of families are “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Cole says our country’s education system “hasn’t thought outside the box about social service issues they can help with. Most schools don’t have an infrastructure in place to support kids outside the normal school days.” They don’t have partnerships with community organizations like Kids Unlimited, he says, or aren’t willing to open schools during breaks for outside programming.

As for parents, they say they work hard to maintain the holiday spirit despite the added stress—but it’s not easy. “I force a smile sometimes,” Floyd said. “It’s overwhelming. You not only have those three meals a day, but you have to put something in that Christmas stocking.”

Education coverage for NBCNews.com is supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation.

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This story was originally published on Tue Dec 24, 2013 5:35 PM EST


Martha C. White, NBC News contributor

Shoppers look through discount pamphlets at the Best Buy electronics store in Westbury, N.Y. Retail experts say more shoppers are waiting for bigger discounts this year.

SHANNON STAPLETON / Reuters
Shoppers look through discount pamphlets at the Best Buy electronics store in Westbury, N.Y. Retail experts say more shoppers are waiting for bigger discounts this year.

With just two days to go before Christmas, it’s becoming clear that shoppers won the annual game of chicken.

While retailers aren’t exactly tumbling off a cliff, they’ve rolled out aggressive last-minute efforts to entice shoppers to their stores or websites. Consumers are responding to these promotions, which include staying open for days straight, discounts of 40 percent or 50 percent and free delivery by Christmas as late as Monday.

Even with these inducements, though, shoppers are buying far more selectively than retailers had hoped, and some even say they’ll wait until after Christmas to make purchases so they can score even bigger discounts.

“People just held back,” said Jeff Feinberg, managing director with professional services firm Alvarez & Marsal. “They just didn’t spend as much, so retailers really had to drop prices in order to spur it,” he said.

“I just waited until this weekend to [pay] what I thought was fair,” said Andrea Vollf, an interior designer in Schaumburg, Ill. “Stores pretty much overprice everything to cover their overhead …. I don’t see the point of paying $100 for something that’s maybe worth 10 or 20 bucks. I just wait for the sales,” she said.

Vollf said she didn’t have as much company at the mall as she expected over the weekend. “I was kind of surprised,” she said. “I didn’t have to fight with people to get my presents.”

Holding out for deeper discounts

In-store analytics company RetailNext studied 450 stores nationwide and said traffic dropped by about 7 percent Friday and Saturday. “Early indications show a miss on comparable sales in brick-and-mortar stores compared to last year,” the company said in a statement.

“It has been a promotional season,” said Joseph Feldman, senior analyst at Telsey Advisory Group. “We still think comps will be up 2, 2.5 percent in aggregate … with total sales up in the 3 to 4 percent range,” he said.

Other analysts also predicted that same-store sales would inch up 2 percent to 3 percent across the retail sector overall, with aggressive discounters and value brands faring the best. Across most income levels, shoppers responded to a still-slow economy, while the shorter holiday shopping season gave them less time to buy, Feinberg said.

“There’s still this overhang and people … hold their purse strings a little bit tighter,” said Morningstar equity analyst Jaime Katz. She said retailers responded by lowering prices, if not across the board, at least on selected items. In these final days, “It seems like it’s escalating,” she said. “To me, that would indicate holidays didn’t turn out as fruitful as maybe they had originally hoped.”

In the crush of discounts, shoppers apparently still want more.

“When you ask consumers why they didn’t get finished, the number one reason was they were waiting for bigger discounts,” said Britt Beemer, chairman and founder of America’s Research Group. In a survey, nearly a quarter of last-minute shoppers said they were holding out for 60 percent or 70 percent off discounts.

RetailNext said shoppers who opened their wallets were spending more — sales were up between 3 percent and 4 percent, but whether that’s enough to make up for fewer shoppers remains to be seen. “I think people are willing to spend more this year; (I) think they just want to see lower prices,” Katz said. “It’s great for consumers and it stinks for companies.”

‘It’s still a present’ after Christmas

Vollf said she planned to continue her seasonal shopping after Christmas. “I know they’re going to be having a lot of 50 percent off or 60 percent off. For the things that are not gifts or an emergency, I’m waiting until the 26th and I’m going to shop it,” she said. “I might spend the same amount and get more items.”

Mark LoCastro, spokesman for DealNews, said some shoppers were using gift cards as a kind of placeholder gift that recipients could use for post-Christmas bargain-hunting. “Get a gift card and put it under the tree, which will force the recipient to shop the after-Christmas sales, which are way better than they are before Christmas,” he said.

That’s what Raleigh, N.C., resident Michelle Morton said she decided to do. Morton said waiting until last weekend to do some shopping paid off — she was able to get an extra discount on an iPad mini for one of her kids — and she expected the deals to be better after the holiday. Rather than purchase clothes for her teenagers, the 43-year-old professional organizer and life coach had what she called a “light bulb moment” and bought them gift cards for their favorite stores.

“After Christmas, all that stuff is going to be on sale so they’re going to be able to get more than if I buy it now,” she said. “We need to do our shopping the day after Christmas.”

One bright spot for retailers there is that gift card users tend to spend more than the amount of the card. “It helps, especially to get people back in the stores in the next week or two,” Feldman said. “The week after Christmas is a big period.”

While giving after-Christmas gifts isn’t likely to become the norm, it could certainly grow between close friends or relatives. “Most kids probably understand you can get them placeholder smaller-ticket items,” Katz said, and deliver the goods after Christmas. “The worst that happens is you wind up paying the same price as before Christmas.”

Paul Zuk of Bayonne, N.J., said he doesn’t consider Christmas Day an actual deadline for buying gifts. “I actually plan to do a lot more shopping after Christmas,” said Zuk, a 26-year-old computer programmer. For his sister and his girlfriend, Zuk said he had plans for big-ticket gifts, but that he would wait until after the holiday because he expected better prices.

“They got little things now and I’m going to get better things after the holidays,” he said. “It’s still a present, no matter what day you give it to them.”