New estimates released last month by the U.S. Census Bureau show many Beaufort County families are struggling to make ends meet.
The percentage of families living below the poverty level has steadily grown, from 6 percent in 2008 to 7.7 percent in 2009 to 8.7 percent last year.
Those figures are only estimates, based on annual community surveys, and are subject to statistical error. For instance, the Census Bureau gives last year's poverty rate a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.5 percentage points.
But those who help needy residents say their experience suggests the economic hardship depicted by the numbers is accurate.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Island Packet
Betsy Doughtie, executive director of The Deep Well Project on Hilton Head Island, said the group has seen "skyrocketing" need for its assistance over the past three years.
Deep Well, which helps families in emergencies buy food or pay rent and utility bills, assisted more than 2,000 families last year. She said that's a higher number than in previous years.
"They're almost always working people," Doughtie said. "But they're what you'd call the working poor. They do not make a lot of money."
Similarly, Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services received more than 800 new patients between January and August, compared to perhaps 200 or 300 during previous years, said chief executive officer Roland Gardner.
At the same time, the amount of uncollected payments has risen, as has the number of uninsured people seeking care.
In 2009, 46 percent of the organization's patients were uninsured.
Last year, that number jumped to 51 percent.
University of South Carolina economist Doug Woodward said the state is experiencing an economic downturn that is "unprecedented" since World War II.
"The labor force participation rate is going down, there aren't as many people working, so you don't have as many two-earner households as you had a few years ago," Woodward said. "There aren't as many jobs -- more and more, households are working just off one paycheck or one-and-a-half paychecks."
The (Columbia) State contributed to this report.
Follow reporter Kyle Peterson at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.