Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Hunger and Poverty Here and Everywhere, A Tragedy that Can and Should Be Averted

The Psychological Effects of Poverty and Hunger
By Connye Griffin

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a novel taught in middle and high schools across this nation. Most then will remember Atticus Finch’s advice to his daughter Scout: you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Atticus wanted both his children to become less prone to snap judgments and rash actions, lessons that most parents would endorse.

Still judging others seems to be a part of all human interaction. Shaking their heads in dismay, neighbors doubt the wisdom of painting a house any shade of purple. They go to court over the heights of fences and reject the company of those who do not follow standard community dress codes.

One segment of society subjected to stern judgment is the poor class. Such stern voices can be heard here at the Lake. Two prominent criticisms heard often are: 1) why do poor people use precious monetary resources for unhealthy foods or cigarettes and 2) why do poor people waste money on frivolous things? One answer to both is that poor people are as human as those in the middle class and above.

Studies related to willpower and its effects upon diet, exercise, and brain development have helped many understand why people in general and for the purposes of this article, poor people in particular, use precious monetary resources for what many deem inessential items. Since the 1990s and over the course of 13 years, researchers have replicated experiments with similar results, learning that “exerting self-control on an initial task impaired self-control on subsequent tasks: Consumers became more susceptible to tempting products; chronic dieters overate; people were more likely to lie for monetary gain; and so on.”

Most people will recognize themselves in the mirror of those experiments; indeed most people have indulged themselves after a particularly trying day at work when they had to exert self-control just to get through the day. Those people may have chosen to eat and drink in excess as a reward or way of comforting themselves. The poor do the same except that they are required to exert self-control more often, for more consecutive days, and perhaps with no end in sight. Thus, when SNAP benefits arrive or a bit of extra cash weighs heavily in a pocket, the comforts are potato chips, fatty foods, cigarettes, and perhaps beer.

The answer to the second question derives from the same body of research. Chronic, unrelenting deprivation increases the desire for relief found in food, sweet and/or alcoholic beverages, and other means of self-medication. Furthermore, choosing wisely requires confidence in the belief that circumstances can and will improve through sustained effort. Change demands the ability to hold out hope for a better future, but research suggests that “Poverty may reduce free will, making it even harder for the poor to escape their circumstances.”

For example, the poor must often choose between paying the rent to secure a shelter or taking a child to the doctor, buying food for the family or buying enough gasoline to drive to work, showing up for a shift at work while sick or risking termination to stay home and get well. These are lose-lose choices; they weigh heavily upon the heart and mind, so much so that the ability to choose well and wisely becomes impaired. Worse, when forced to make such choices again and again, the poor may lose hope of ever changing their circumstances. Consequently, they may take comfort in frivolous things and events. Doing so is human, an affliction within us all. For the poor, the consequences compound and confine.

Should Society Rescue Hungry Children Living in Poverty?

Few would dispute the fact that some parents cannot or will not provide good homes in which children thrive. The question for us all is what to do about it. Answering that question requires information about the effects of hunger and poverty.

First, children would ask that citizens hold them harmless. After all, the children did not choose to be poor and hungry, and they can do little to change their circumstances. They are poor and hungry by an accident of birth.

Second, recent research has allowed us to understand the effects of poverty on the children’s developing brains. One study pursuing the conclusions drawn from older, historical research found that “severe psychological and physical neglect produces measurable changes in children’s brains.” Like those challenged by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the brains of poor and traumatized children show that the hippocampus has atrophied.

The healthy growth of the hippocampus is crucial for it “regulates emotional responses, [and] is critical in the formation of memory and spatial awareness.” Its role then is linked to the ability to perform in school. Children need to believe they can remember in order to also believe in their abilities to learn. In addition, they must be emotionally equipped to weather group settings and restrain their impulses, choosing positive emotions and accompanying actions.

Poor children are under duress to succeed. They experience stress at levels higher than other children because they experience food insecurity, evictions, and school transfers more often than their classmates from middle and upper class homes. Poor children are often bullied because they are marginalized as the newcomer or the child that wears the same clothes or arrives at school on cold days without a coat for warmth.

Third, food deprivation is as significant as poverty. Without proper, sufficient nutrition, children may not take in vitamins and minerals vital to their development. They may also be scarred psychologically because they are “the other,” the ones who do not have money for snacks or a family that sends them to school with good lunches. They recognize the physical sensation of being hungry and know that their classmates do not experience that sensation chronically. Being hungry and different simply adds to the child’s stress.

Finally and perhaps most important is the effect of hunger on a child’s ability to learn. Children themselves speak to their own despair when hungry. They report that they feel distracted, unable to concentrate, unable to care about lessons. Hungry children are also more susceptible to illnesses, leading to absences from school and perhaps grade jeopardy.

Josette Sheeran, head of the United Nations’ Food Program in 2011, reports that children who lack adequate nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life will never recover from its lack. Haunted by a child’s cry that cannot be assuaged with food, Sheeran asserts that the world has food resources sufficient to end hunger. She challenges the world to do so.

Meeting the Needs of Hungry Children and Families in Camden County

Deanna Martin is a counselor at Oak Ridge Elementary. She and her counterparts in Camden County schools insure that no child goes hungry; they facilitate and oversee the Buddy Pack program at 7 county elementary schools. Oak Ridge, like many schools across the nation, has a clothes closet, too, stocked by the dollar and goods donations of its patrons.

Martin believes that those who question the Buddy Pack program should focus upon the children. She says that she doesn’t care if the parents spend money unwisely; her mission is to make sure no child goes hungry, especially over the weekends when school meals are not available to them. Martin adds that “it’s easy to let go of judgment” when people focus upon the needs of children. She’s sorry that some people think that the actions of the parents weigh in the scales of sating a child’s hunger.

Thanks to The Food Bank, Camden County schools do not have to collect food for the Buddy Packs, but in years past, when the Food Bank’s stores ran low, county teachers were asked to bring in food, using their own pantries and dollars to do so. They did, of course. As has been often stated, teachers spend some of their own relatively modest salaries to prop up and teach children.

Oak Ridge opened its Clothes Closet last week to distribute winter coats and jackets to 37 students who might otherwise have arrived at school cold. Martin herself took another child to buy long pants; the child owned nothing other than Capri-length pants and thus, her ankles were cold. These are standard procedures in area schools striving to foster confidence and health in children while also preparing them for a competitive future.

Counselors and teachers fill backpacks with 1 shelf-stable milk, 2 entrées such as ravioli, 2 servings of cereal, 2 shelf-stable fruit servings, and one snack. Once each month, the children also take home a jar of peanut butter. Without these packs, some children simply would not eat on weekends. Teachers learn this by observing and by being available to listen when children tell them about being hungry at home. After a teacher or counselor referral, children begin to receive Buddy Pack supplies with no other screening required.

The Food Bank is able to provide supplies because of donations and partnerships with General Mills, WalMart, Socket and Kraft. Buddy Packs are therefore a privately funded resource with corporate backing. They fill in the gaps left between minimum wage work, publically funded programs such as SNAP, and human need.

A different local Westside mainstay for adults and families who need help feeding themselves is Share the Harvest Food Pantry, located in Greenview, just a short drive past the intersection of Highways 7 and EE. Share the Harvest receives 50% of its supplies from the Food Bank and 35% from area groceries including WalMart, Woods, and Gerbes. The remaining 15% comes from the generosity of people and sweat equity. Sheila Morse pays a lot of that equity. She’s in charge of the garden. On the day we visited, Morse was picking and washing kale in the greenhouse to add to the produce available for 1,000 families numbering 3,000 people who eat because of and from Share the Harvest’s bounty.

Director Judy Wimmer reports that 20% of the people shopping at Share the Harvest are elderly. Many are physically and/or mentally challenged. The rest are wintering without unemployment benefits because if hired as a seasonal employee, that person does not qualify for unemployment or any other benefits. Wimmer notes that seasonal employment or the recreational and entertainment industries are the biggest employers here at the Lake, but most of those jobs pay minimum wage, a wage that does not allow people to save or afford much nutrition.

Both Wimmer and Martin are adamant that no one should begrudge children living in poverty a helping hand or a full stomach.

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Thank you for reading this blog and some of the 198 posts. Al and I appreciate your comments and "likes." Look for Al Griffin's continued commitment to the homeless through posts to Google+. Look for Connye Griffin's thoughts about literature, film, and life on the blog titled My Writing and Editing Coach. We have found it necessary to retire this blog as we develop a collaborative one about our new home in Central Missouri.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Hunger and Poverty Here and Everywhere

1 in 4 Camden County Children Are Poor, Quite Likely Hungry
Think of Them Everyday, Not Just at This Time of Year
By Connye Griffin

U. S. citizens weigh and debate public policy over dinner and during election seasons. One of the policies often debated is the role of government in behalf of those who are in need. Some contend that using tax dollars to help is not appropriate. Doing so, they argue, weakens the recipients, transforming them into hangers-on or dependents. They worry that people will not become self-sufficient if there is a regulated, publicly funded social net to catch them when they fall. A few even worry that privately funded social nets do harm as well. Others argue that a tightly woven social net protects and rescues people in need, giving them a hand up rather than a hand out.

While the debate may never be resolved, data can light the way as policy-makers draft programs and legislation. Data, many believe, will facilitate conversations and collaborations, but before data can enlighten, the words “poverty” and “hunger” as defined by data-collectors should be understood.

The primary source for data about U. S. citizens, including those in Camden County, is the U. S. Census Bureau , and it defines “poverty” as not having sufficient resources to meet the required threshold to sustain and provide for a family. The Urban Institute defines it more simply: to be poor is to lack the funds to provide food. Not to be poor is to have the resources to buy enough food multiplied by a factor of three. However, poverty thresholds vary according to the size of the family and ages of its members. A family of four, for example, needs more income to meet basic needs than does a single individual. Moreover, poverty levels are adjusted according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). In other words, poverty thresholds change as the price of food, services, housing, and utilities changes; these factors in the cost of living, as every citizen knows, rise, often failing to keep pace with wages. Location does not, however, affect rates of poverty except when determined by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). That department has separate poverty rates for the 48 contiguous states, Alaska, and Hawaii.

Because poverty’s definition depends upon the ability to provide food, poverty and hunger are tightly linked. In fact, “Food insecurity in this country is normally due to insufficient resources for food purchases” (Dawdy, Jordan, Matt Foulkes, and Colleen Heflin. "Background." Introduction. Missouri Hunger Atlas 2013. By Ann Cafer. Online ed. Columbia: U of Missouri Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security, 2014. N. pag. Print.). Poor people live in a state of food insecurity.    

In Camden County, approximately 25.6% or 1 in 4 children live in homes existing below the poverty threshold; it’s conceivable then that at least 1 in 4 Camden County children are hungry, a number slightly higher than in the State of Missouri and across the nation. Only 1 in 5 children outside of Camden County are poor.

If 1 in 4 Camden County children are hungry, then SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps), a publicly funded program, free and reduced meals at public schools, another federally funded program, and Buddy Packs, a privately funded charity, would seem necessary, and data confirms that assumption. In fact, in 2013, 4,664 people or 71.1% of income-eligible Camden County individuals received SNAP benefits. In 2013, 3,035 children participated in the free and reduced lunch programs at County schools.

Stacey Brown, Coordinator for Buddy Packs with The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri reports that 7 Camden County elementary schools serve 618 children or 20.8% of the 2,965 elementary population. Containing 1 shelf-stable milk product, 2 entrĂ©es such as ravioli, 2 cereal servings, 2 shelf-stable fruit servings, and 2 snacks, Buddy Packs provide food to sustain Camden County’s children through the weekend. Once monthly, they also receive a jar of peanut butter. These supplies may be all the child(ren) have if the family does not participate in SNAP or uses up its SNAP eligibility before the end of the month. 

Buddy Packs are not, however, given only to children who qualify for free and reduced meals at school or even those who qualify for SNAP. Buddy Packs are given to children whose teachers notice that they are struggling and hungry, two impediments to their well-being. Surely Camden County can trust its teachers to be good judges of children in need of sustenance.

 Causes of Poverty and Hunger in America and Right Here at Home

In a debate about supplemental nutrition programs and poverty relief in America, someone will argue against both in the belief that the poor simply should and can work harder, that a wide swath of the population expects hand-outs without compensatory work. Others will argue that data and experience simply do not support that point of view, but who is correct?

A recent book by Linda Tirado, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, reveals that Tirado’s life challenges began with her own choices. She “left home at sixteen for college, promptly behaved as well as you’d expect a teenager to, and was estranged from [her] family for over a decade. [She] quit college when it beame clear that [she] was taking out loans to no good effect; [she] wasn’t ready for it” (Tirado, Linda. "Introduction." Introduction. Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America. Kindle ed. New York: Penguin Group, 2014. 158. Print.). Exacerbating her choices was a drunk driver who slammed into and totaled her car, “bouts of unemployment,” medical bills, and a flood that claimed everything she owned.

Any one of these events would challenge most adults who would rebound with the help of insurance and the support of friends and family. A young adult without insurance or family would be less likely to do so, especially because “The brain isn't fully mature at 16, when we are allowed to drive, or at 18, when we are allowed to vote, or at 21, when we are allowed to drink, but closer to 25, when we are allowed to rent a car,” according to research. As author Linda Tirado grants, her judgment has often worked against her long-term dreams.

Still, should public or private monies rescue people like Tirado from their own bad decisions and life blows? Should funds be appropriated to lift people from their low economic circumstances? Answers depend in part on whether it’s possible for people to lift themselves.

One answer is “yes;” it is possible to rise above the poverty threshold. The Urban Institute, using research from the late 1980s and 2005, reports that employment and pay raises are the two factors that pull people out of poverty. Other significant factors are completing high school, a post-high school degree, or transitioning from a single-parent home to a two-parent home.

In light of these factors, Camden County might be considered a particularly difficult place in which to be poor, primarily because many jobs found here are service jobs and seasonal, lasting 100 days. Furthermore, “While the U.S. economy has now returned to the absolute number of private-sector jobs it had in 2008, the losses and gains have not been evenly distributed: High-wage industries lost 1 million positions, while low-wage jobs gained 1.8 million.” Perhaps more significant is wage stagnation. The minimum wage was increased five years ago in 2009 while the cost of living has risen by double digits.

The Pew Research Center notes that minimum wage jobs do not provide enough income to lift most people out of poverty. In Missouri, that wage is $7.50 per hour. If a worker is lucky enough to work 40 hours each week for 52 weeks every year, he or she will gross $15,600. Taxes will reduce that gross to a net amount of $14,400. In Camden County, that same worker will need at least $355 monthly or $5,220 to rent a place to live, but two bedrooms will cost more. Everything else--transportation, food, healthcare, clothing, fuel, and utilities--must be paid from the remaining $9,180, affording only $765 monthly for that everything else. In Camden County, transportation to and from work places and grocery stores will take a lot of that remainder.

Another problem is that few minimum wage workers enjoy 40 hours each week; fewer work 52 of 52 weeks annually. Hand to Mouth author, Linda Tirado, reports that low-wage service workers are often part-time workers, assigned 28-32 hours weekly in order to avoid paying benefits. Without benefits, the worker has no sick leave or health care without government subsidy.

Furthermore, some employers require that employees sign agreements not to hold a second job because the employer wants availability. The boss wants to be able to call a worker in if another worker falls off the schedule for any reason (Tirado 352). With conditions such as these, a pay raise is the only chance to rise above the poverty threshold. At service jobs, this means becoming a shift manager, assistant, or even general manager, but even the highest title has an earning ceiling in the mid-$30,000 range in urban areas (Tirado 442).

The element over which a worker may have greater control is education. High school drop-outs earn $10,000 less than those who stay to earn a diploma. In fact, the poverty rate for drop-outs is twice as high as it is for college graduates. So staying in high school to graduate is an important first-step in avoiding a life-time of poverty, but those teens may not make good choices. They may believe they can become Tumblr’s founder David Karp or Virgin Airlines’ CEO Richard Branson, but exceptionally successful and wealthy high school drop-outs are the most rare of rare exception, not the rule. Those teens may not have a strong family support network to help them stay in school.

Drop-outs in poverty should then go back to school to earn a GED and better still, a college degree--if they can find the means to afford it, of course, the transportation to attend, and the job that will allow them to work while studying. Each of these is a hurdle that many will never jump. Judy Crawford, a dedicated Camden County volunteer, wonders “how the poor can ever see a light at the end of the tunnel.” She says she is but one person “in the wheel that turns to keep people hanging on,” an important role in any community because about half of those who fall into poverty will climb out within a year. Unfortunately, many of those will fall back again, and the longer a person is poor, the odds turn against him or her. Long-term poverty becomes a chronic problem few escape.

Interventions such as those provided by the many cogs in the community wheel, including shelters, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), free and reduced meals at school, and Buddy Packs may be the best social tools to help people overcome poverty and hunger until they can secure an education or full-time employment.

Next week's post will continue the conversation on poverty and hunger.


Note: This blog will retire at the end of 2014. We are grateful to those of you who have read posts and especially grateful to those of you who've commented or liked these posts. Look for Al Griffin's thoughts and images about homelessness in the U. S. on Google+. Connye Griffin continues to write and critique at My Writing and Editing Coach on Blogspot.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Homeless in Oklahoma City, OK: Corey

Words and Images by Al Griffin

Without a doubt, the most upbeat person I have ever met on the streets is Corey. He just bubbled all the time. Even before I approached him, I could see his wide smile across the parking lot as I parked my car.

When I asked him how he was doing, he couldn’t wait to tell me he was doing very well indeed. My first impression of Corey was that somewhere soon somebody was going to be very fortunate to have him in the workforce. I think Corey will bring the enthusiasm and outgoing style to any workplace that hires him.

He talked about living on the street and the difficulties of day-to-day existence but he never acted like it got him down. He always ended every story with a note of triumph about how he overcame the situation and moved on with life. 

When I look back on all the homeless persons with whom I have visited, I think Corey is the one most likely to succeed in moving up and out of the street life. That kind of enthusiasm and confidence spreads and brings others up for the brief time he comes into their lives.

I hope he succeeds and hope also that he can give a little of that positive outlook to others.


Note: This blog will retire at the end of 2014. We are grateful to those of you who have read posts and especially grateful to those of you who've commented or like these posts. Look for Al Griffin's thoughts and images about homelessness in the U. S. on Google+. Connye Griffin continues to write and critique at My Writing and Editing Coach on Blogspot.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Homeless in Oklahoma City, OK: Conway

Words and Images by Al Griffin

Striding with a purpose, Conway came across the plaza carrying his entire world on his back. Since I stood in his direct path, he slowed to nod when I spoke. When I reached out my hand to shake. he grinned and shook hands enthusiastically. Conway said he was on his way to catch a bus, hoping to find better opportunities farther North. 

Conway reminded me of another homeless man I met years ago. Both are tall, dignified looking with interesting faces.

The only thing I know for sure about Conway based upon our brief encounter is that he needed to get to this bus quickly before it pulled out from the terminal a few blocks away. This bus would carry him to better times. The next one might not do that.

The thing I know about Conway is that he needed that bus. The thing I believe about Conway is that he looks forward and out, not down and in. He seemed to have hope, and that is a good thing.


Note: This blog will retire at the end of 2014. We are grateful to those of you who have read posts and especially grateful to those of you who've commented or liked these posts. Look for Al Griffin's thoughts and images about homelessness in the U. S. on Google+. Connye Griffin continues to write and critique at MyWriting and Editing Coach on Blogspot.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Homeless in Oklahoma City, OK: Erin

Words and Images by Al Griffin

I found Erin standing outside a day-labor center at the edge of the parking lot. Like others nearby, he wore a bright colored vest to identify him as available through the temp agency system. Even though he lives on the street, he picks up work many days through the agency. 

Erin said he came from Lawton in Southwest Oklahoma, but was born in Germany. He has never had a real home since reaching adulthood. He has no family left and seems to have adjusted to his plight. 

I have no statistical evidence to offer, but in my experience, I have found more and more young people living on the street in the last few years. In 1995 I started regularly seeking out and visiting with those living on the street in large cities from Atlanta to New York to Seattle and even Vancouver, B.C. Although completely anecdotal in nature, my observations indicate a downward trend in the age of homeless individuals in America.

If I can’t imagine a person such as an itinerate farm laborer living the last few years of his life in the bitter circumstances of street life, how can I begin to fathom the long endless years from childhood to old age faced by the Erins of the world?

Can he rise above the reality of his circumstances?

Yes, many do so.

Will he succeed?

I hope he does. He is not afraid to work based upon his willingness to put himself out there every day for the agency. And he does make some money on an occasional basis. 

Full or part-time employment usually requires transportation, permanent residency, and reliable communication by phone. The old adage that it takes money to make money does not just apply to the wealthy entrepreneur starting a new business. Just getting a job requires the means to hold that job day to day and earn the trust of the employer that the long-term investment in this employee will pay off for both parties. Reliability requires character first, but also resources. 

Erin seems to have enough character to succeed based upon my observations. I hope he can gain the resources to find that real job for which he searches.


Note: This blog will retire at the end of 2014. We are grateful to those of you who have read posts and especially grateful to those of you who've commented or liked these posts. Look for Al Griffin's thoughts and images about homelessness in the U. S. on Google+. Connye Griffin continues to write and critique at My Writing and Editing Coach on Blogspot.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Homeless in Oklahoma City, OK: Clyde

by Al Griffin

Sitting on a bench in the pre-dawn glow of a streetlight, Clyde drooped forward, half asleep and bundled into coats and sweatshirts with hoods piled up on his neck. On his head he wore two baseball caps. As I walked up, he opened his eyes and stared for a long time. He smiled a little when I asked if I could sit on the bench.

Clyde dropped out of school in the 6th grade, he said. Born in Norman and growing up in Moore, he worked at fast food places doing the usual entry level jobs for years, but a downhill slide was inevitable due to Clyde's lack of education. Clyde ended up on the streets about 5 years ago. He doesn’t have much hope of finding his way out of the current situation.

He smiles and talks freely, answering questions without any sense of loss or deprivation in his life. He seems to accept his circumstances as the permanent condition of his life. 

Sometimes I think the indomitable human spirit shows through these who drift from day to day on the street. They carry a spark that will not be quenched by circumstances so dire others cannot imagine them. Those of us who have everything we need to make life good on so many levels will never understand the ability to plod onward from day to day in an existence so bleak, so devoid of hope, so cold and wet and hungry. 

Other times I wonder if the ability to carry on into the dark face of utter hopelessness is not just a biological necessity like a moth flying toward light; without thinking or feeling or understanding, the creature gropes onward for no apparent reason.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chuck, Homeless in Oklahoma City, Early November 2014

I found Chuck dozing on a sidewalk bench at dawn in downtown Oklahoma City. I would have passed him by, but he stirred as I moved past and smiled up from the bench. When I asked if I could join him, he flashed a wide grin and indicated the spot beside him.

Chuck claimed the Cheyenne Tribe and said he came from around Lawton, Oklahoma originally. The Cheyenne people were among those relocated to Indian Territory during our westward expansion. A dark distinction in Cheyenne history is the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864; it was the most horrific unprovoked attack in American history and changed forever the course of our expansion and our relations with the Native Americans.

On the streets for several years, Chuck’s work history included nurse’s aid for home health companies, but a felony conviction in his background limits employment opportunities. Assault on a police officer and other crimes of violence dot his record. Relating one courtroom scene recently, when the judge asked if Chuck was trying to “kill that guy,” Chuck said he answered “probably, but I don’t remember.”

Chuck seems to remember the little things about life on the street. He talked about finding shelter and more permanent housing, but needs to have some income to accomplish that goal. Affable and outgoing, Chuck seemed to enjoy our time together, grinning and laughing on a warm, fall morning as the sun glinted off the glass and steel of downtown buildings. 

With winter coming, I wonder how Chuck will fare today and tonight when the cold wind seeps into whatever humble shelter he can find. His people ruled the Western plains along with their allies, the Arapaho. Chuck does not seem to rule much but his own spirit. Maybe that is all any one of us can hope for. I wish him well and hope to see him again.

Words and images by Al Griffin