Point Austin: Holiday Hunger
While helping our neighbors, consider the structures of poverty
Among the many subjects unaddressed in the seemingly endless series of Republican presidential debates is that of persistent American poverty. Perhaps it's just as well; amid the full-throated endorsements of endless war and unlimited torture ("I'll support [waterboarding] until the day I die!" declared Gov. Rick Perry), one can only imagine what paroxysms of condescension the subject of the undeserving poor would evoke from most of the GOP field. In their gated universe, poor people exist only because of personal inanition or Barack Obama, and the only solutions are "personal responsibility" and even more official deference to the demands of the most wealthy: the "job creators."
Back on Earth, earlier this month the U.S. Census Bureau released newly adjusted data on nationwide poverty; the 2010 Supplemental Poverty Measure reflects that fully 16% of Americans live in poverty, or roughly 3 million more than the current "official" standard (15.2%), which doesn't account either for programs that help children (thus lowering their poverty rate) nor costs (e.g., rising medical expenses) that primarily hurt older Americans, increasing the rate for all those older than 17. In Texas – or what Perry describes as the job creators' paradise known as the "Texas Miracle" – the rates of poverty and hunger are predictably higher, with the official poverty rate cresting at nearly 19%.
Consulting the statistics on hunger on the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas website is as illuminating as it is distressing. In its 21-county area, the CAFB serves some 48,000 people every week, 300,000 annually (of the nearly 450,000 Central Texans who routinely endure "food insecurity"). Forty-one percent of the clients are children; more than a third of the elderly clients spend extended periods without food; 82% of those in need are not homeless, and nearly half live in a home with at least one working adult.
The statistics reflect that the thousands of needy people in Central Texas are, in great part, not indigent folks on Downtown street corners begging for spare change. They are our neighbors.
By the Numbers
Numbers on that scale reflect a reality quite different from trickle-down mythologies of Republican candidates. The numbers inscribe hunger and poverty that is structural, not incidental, not random failures of opportunity but the economic bottom of the Texas wage market, where roughly a fifth of Texas families are routinely expected to live at a subsistence level, and the rest of us, paycheck to paycheck – and most of us just a layoff or medical emergency from financial disaster and the food pantry line. As the CAFB's John Turner wrote in London's The Guardian earlier this year: "To place it in perspective, the minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, or $14,500 per year. This type of wage and job creation doesn't create a living, much less long-term prosperity. According to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an average family without employer sponsored health insurance living in the Austin area must earn $53,080 at a minimum to make ends meet."
As difficult as it is to survive on $7.25 an hour, among the many nostrums peddled by Perry and his ideological allies (including the sainted Ron Paul) is that any minimum-wage laws at all constitute overregulation and socialist meddling in the "free market." That's the paradisal clime where workers are free to negotiate "on a level playing field" with their corporate employers, who are equally free to hire and fire them by the gross, and attempts by workers to unionize and bargain collectively are literally outlawed for the benefit of those same corporations. (For some reason, the latter is not "meddling in the free market"; it's defending your inalienable "right to work.") The point is, poverty on this scale is not accidental; it's manufactured by the people who claim to be creating jobs when in fact their overriding goal is holding down wages and thereby keeping "the labor market" – you and me – soft, cheap, and "disciplined."
Neighbors Helping Neighbors
I gathered all those grim statistics in the wake of a morning spent visiting, with Chronicle photographer John Anderson, the St. John Community Food Center (see "One Day at a Time"). As you can see from John's photos, the need is real, the response energetic, and – despite the difficult circumstances – the staff, volunteers, and clients exhibit a great deal of grace under pressure. This is the time of year when the Chronicle receives growing numbers of solicitations for charity events and food drives, and we do our best to list, recount, or advertise many of them. I suspect most of our readers – not the highest-paid demographic themselves – are involved directly in many of those efforts.
If you're still looking for a way to help, the CAFB is a very good place to start. It makes it very easy to donate through your workplace, place of worship, clubs or other organizations, or directly on its website (www.austinfoodbank.org/how-to-help), and the food bank knows how to stretch any dollar it receives into five dollars' worth of food – and "96% of your gift goes directly to support the programs serving your neighbors in need." The CAFB and all its partner agencies also rely overwhelmingly on volunteerism, so if you have more time to give than money, the food bank can certainly use that, too.
Even as we cringe at the hypocritical spectacle of the political campaigns, at the other end of the current spectrum is the Occupy Movement, which has shifted the national political discussion away from "tax cuts" and "deficit reduction" toward fighting inequality and restoring political and economic justice. That's not a fight we are likely to win easily or quickly. In the meantime, we still need to do what we can to help our neighbors, who, despite living in the "Texas Miracle," find themselves struggling for the resources to make it through this holiday season in hard times.
Please do what you can.
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