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.