By Ellen Yan
March 31, 2008
These days, food pantries aren’t just for the jobless or homeless.
Tapping such free resources has turned into a survival tactic for some working members of the middle class as they struggle with an economy that has put them in a bind.
A father of three, Bill makes more than $70,000 a year. But after his mortgage rate reset in October, hiking his payments from $3,300 to $4,300, he began going to his church’s food pantry.
“I sat here at home and argued with my wife about who’s going,” said Bill, a Nassau County employee who asked not to be identified further. “I tried to go to work that day. … It’s very embarrassing.
“Here I’m making a decent salary. I’m a professional, but I can’t even feed my kids.”
More and more working Long Islanders are straining to put groceries on the table as many essentials — milk and bread, fuel oil, gasoline and health care premiums — have climbed faster than the Consumer Price Index. In some cases, they’re people daunted by the steep rise in property taxes or payments on their adjustable-rate mortgages.
These new hard times have turned some past donors into today’s receivers of charity. The number of people seeking help is up even as donations are down. Food collected from restaurants and supermarkets by the Mineola-based Island Harvest dropped from 7 million pounds in 2006 to 6.5 million last year, and the agency has started pressing more farmers to help fill the hole.
While no agency keeps statistics for food pantries across Long Island, some operators find they’re facing double the number of clients from a year ago.
“We’re seeing folks that may own a home, who may be working two or three jobs, but are not able to cover all the costs that they’ve incurred,” said Gwen O’Shea, president of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, a social services advocacy group.
–Continued at Long Island Cares (originally published by Newsday)
Lots of Long Islanders discuss the issue at Topix (443 comments and counting)
From The Nation — “The New Suburban Poverty” — selected excerpts:
Last December the Brookings Institution published a report showing that from Las Vegas to Boise to Houston, suburban poverty has been growing over the past seven years, in some places slowly, in others by as much as 33 percent. “The enduring social and fiscal challenges for cities that stem from high poverty are increasingly shared by their suburbs,” the report concludes. It’s a problem some may assume is confined to the ragged fringes of so-called “inner ring” suburbs that directly border cities, places where the housing stock is older and from which many wealthier residents long ago departed. But this isn’t the case. “Overall…first suburbs did not bear the brunt of increasing suburban poverty in the early 2000s,” notes the Brookings report, which found that economic distress has spread to “second-tier suburbs and ‘exurbs'” as well.
The result is a historic milestone that has gone strangely ignored: For the first time ever, more poor Americans live in the suburbs than in all our cities combined. …
What you’ll also see are people like the day laborers who gather every morning in the parking lots of the Home Depots in Nassau County, Long Island, where the median family income is $87,558 and the overall poverty rate is fairly low, but where the demand for food stamps has increased by 40 percent since 2003. …
Price used to make $15 an hour, with health benefits and vacation days. What he’s hoping to avoid is the fate of people like Jodi Wilmouth, whom I met at the Rockingham County Red Cross, which opened a food pantry several years ago in a low-slung brick building in Eden. Wilmouth earns $6.25 an hour as a cashier at a local department store called Belk, which she said is not enough to cover her basic expenses. On the day she dropped by, President Bush was visiting a Caterpillar plant in Peoria, Illinois. He later said that in today’s economy “workers are making more money.” …
But the suburbs also have their disadvantages, among them the fact that getting anywhere generally requires a car. There’s no public transportation system in most outlying suburban areas, which is why the people who show up at the food pantry at the Red Cross in Rockingham County often carpool to get there, cramming one person each from four or five families into a single vehicle to save gas. Then, too, the newness of suburban poverty means in many towns there’s a dearth of social service agencies to offer help. Nearly 7,000 people showed up at the food pantry last year, a sevenfold increase from 2000. “It’s overwhelming,” said Janna Nowell, the facility’s director. The day before I visited, the pantry ran out of food, a problem that’s become familiar in many suburban locales. “There’s a growing spatial gap between the providers and the people in need,” says Alan Berube. “Public hospitals, nutrition assistance programs–most of these things are still overwhelmingly urban. You see small-scale operations in suburbs getting inundated. They just can’t deal with the demand.” …
Unravel the thread linking suburbs to prosperity and something else begins to come undone: the story Republicans have told about how people living there, particularly those in the fastest-growing, furthest-outlying communities, are their natural constituents. “Democrats stink in the exurbs” is how conservative columnist Brooks put it some years ago, pointing to the strip-mall zones around Orlando, strong Jeb Bush territory, and to Mesa, Arizona, a booming area east of Phoenix. In these rapidly expanding communities, places where the parking lots of megachurches fill up every Sunday with SUVs, liberals just don’t have a clue what matters to people, Brooks implied. In the 2004 election, it appeared he was right: Republicans swept such areas, carrying a startling ninety-seven of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the country. In Democratic circles, panic ensued.
–Continued at The Nation.