Point Austin: Earthquake All Around

Central Texas hunger remains a slow-motion, invisible disaster

Point Austin
In the wake of the unimaginable disaster in Haiti – perhaps 200,000 killed outright, millions left homeless or starving – the worldwide outpouring of assistance to Haitians is undeniably impressive, even if it's been at times uneven and bureaucratic. Reportedly, nearly half of U.S. households have donated to the cause, and here in Austin, public and private groups have contributed whatever they can. That's a pattern in charitable response: When there's a headline catastrophe – a tsunami, a hurricane, an earthquake – spontaneous giving creates its own tidal wave, sometimes overwhelming the short-term ability of care agencies to absorb it.

What happens between disasters? That's not so reassuring, as evidenced by "Hunger in America 2010," the report released Wednesday morning by the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas. The national report was sponsored by Feeding America (formerly America's Second Harvest), the largest national network of emergency food aid. It was prepared by that agency in collaboration with consultancy Mathematica Policy Research, based on surveys of food banks and their clients, with sections tailored locally to reflect local conditions – in this case, Central Texas (21 counties in all).

For a glance at the inside story of regional hunger, consider first what the local agency highlighted as the report's key local findings: 1) One in three food bank clients is a child, 2) 82% are not homeless, 3) almost half (43%) of the families needing emergency food aid have at least one working adult at home, 4) more than half of the families served had to choose between buying food and paying utility bills, 5) one in five families experienced the physical pain of hunger, and 6) more than a third of older-adult clients live for extended periods without food.

Whatever you might think about the causes of poverty, that statistical profile doesn't fit the stereotypes of street-corner panhandlers who would rather drink than work; more than 80% of people served by food banks (pantries, kitchens, shelters) manage to keep a roof over their heads yet are regularly without basic necessities. That profile is also in keeping with the hunger situation across the state; according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, in 2008-2009, Texas was among 20 states with food hardship rates of 20% or higher, and 27.2% of Texas families reported difficulty affording food.

Keep that in mind when the gubernatorial candidates (of whatever party) begin to drone on about the great Texas economy: Much of the time, more than a quarter of Texans can't afford food.

50,000 a Week

There are other nuggets of information in the report that might raise a few eyebrows. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the percentages of people of different ethnic groups seeking aid are disproportional to the 21-county region population as a whole: 37.2% needing aid are non-Hispanic whites (70% of the regional population), 38.3% are Hispanic/Latino (21%), and the African-American percentage (24.5%) of the needy is more than twice their share in the regional population (10%). (The rough regional calculations are mine, from census data. And in case you're wondering, more than 85% of food bank clients are U.S. citizens, although noncitizen households are more likely to experience food insecurity.) It's not news that poverty hits minority households most harshly; but it might surprise some readers that more than a third of food bank clients are white.

In raw numbers, how many people are we talking about? According to the report, the Capital Area Food Bank annually provides emergency food for about 285,000 people (a 63% increase since the 2006 report), or about 48,000 different people in an average week. Some 325 agencies participate in this Central Texas project – and every week, nearly 50,000 of our neighbors must rely on public charity to feed their families.

High Water Rising

On Tuesday, Mayor Lee Leffingwell delivered his state of the city address to an audience of businesspeople, and it was full of superlatives: "best performing metropolitan economy" (Milkin Institute); "best big city in America for jobs" (Forbes); best investment prospects for commercial real estate (Grubb & Ellis); best American city for small business (Portfolio.com); best in composite statistics reflecting economy, crime, environment, life expectancy (Farmer's Insurance Group). Leffingwell did acknowledge immediately that not all is rosy; our current 7% (official) unemployment rate is the highest in 10 years.

The next morning, the mayor joined a group of public-minded citizens and the Capital Area Food Bank to announce the local release of the "Hunger in America" report, full of the sobering statistics I've briefly summarized above. It's undeniable that in these hard times, Austin is doing better right now than most regions of the country. How is it, then, that anywhere from a fifth to a quarter of our fellow citizens are not sharing in that common prosperity? There is something structurally wrong with this economy – reflected in a dearth of entry-level jobs for the people most in need of them; in a laughable minimum-wage rate that cannot support a single person's basic expenses, let alone those of a family; in a state political culture that prioritizes low property taxes (i.e., on accumulated wealth) above all other community priorities – even as working Texans must choose among food or utilities or health care and must rely on public charity for sustenance.

What is to be done? Among other things, we need to be aware that hunger and poverty are more often slow-motion disasters than high-intensity, cable-TV photo ops. We need to remember that the underside of state and city incentives for major employers is the structural unemployment and underemployment that leaves a large number of our neighbors destitute (while depressing wages for the rest of us). We need to raise as much public, political concern for hungry people as we reflexively do for neglected trees or abandoned pets. And we need to figure out ways to address long-term, institutional poverty that doesn't rely only on headline charity campaigns that come and go like a passing storm.

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Capital Area Food Bank, Center for Public Policy Priorities, Lee Leffingwell

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