Sunday, February 26, 2012

Connecting the Dots to End Hunger

I am in Washington, DC for the annual Hunger Policy Conference sponsored by Feeding America and the Food Research and Action Center.

Our opening keynote speaker today was David Shipler, Pulitzer Prize-winning athor of "The Working Poor: Invisible in America."

Mr. Shipler began his remarks by noting that the poverty level in the United States is officially defined as an income of $22,134 or less for a family of four.  If that family has one dollar more in income, they are no longer poor!

He went on to say that if the head of that household worked 40 hours per week, he would need a wage of $10.35 per hour, just for his family to be counted as poor!

Our minimum wage in Connecticut is $8.25 per hour.

Of course, poverty is not just about money, and Shipler noted that it's not even must about income, it's also about debt.  The most common source of debt for low-income people is medical bills, due to the lack of insurance.  This debt can add up to tens of thousands of dollars for a family that is forced to use the emergency room, where they are required to treat you, even with no insurance.  Debt of that magitude for a low-income family creates a sense of powerlessess and hopelessess, making getting out of poverty even more difficult.

Shipler talked about how the current policitical rhetoric goes like this:  "The right blames the poor for their situation and the left blames society."  He said that his research told him that neither has it right - it's a mix of personal and societal failure that makes people poor and keeps them poor, a combination of bad choices and bad fortune.  Bad choices might include dropping out of high school or having a child too young.  Bad fortune might include being badly schooled, badly parented, or badly housed.

In our current environment, the poor are often vilified and people absorb that vilification.  Shipler spoke of a woman who gets up at 4:00 AM every day to go to her low-paying job.  When asked why she thinks she is poor, she said, "I guess I'm just lazy."  Another woman who occassionally resorted to stealing food to feed her family said, "I never steal steak because we are not worth it."

If we are going to end hunger and alleviate poverty (Foodshare's mission) we need to connect the dots, to understand that it's not a simple black and white issue, and work on addressing societal failures while we work with individuals to address personal failures.

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