Commentary: Time to get hungry for U.S. poverty solutions

On Saturdays the large round tables and folding chairs fill up in the basement of Trinity United Methodist Church with people hungry for a hot meal at the Lord’s Table.

It didn’t used to be that way. The clients had been mostly men living on the street.

Now parents come with children of all ages. Older people come to save on food costs, and a lot of African Americans and Hispanics come.

Hunger is the new face of America, and these demographic groups have been hit hard because of high unemployment, foreclosures and the lingering bad economy. Part of the problem is that even for working people, their income has “barely budged since 1974,” the American Human Development Index recently reported in its study on median personal earnings.

It’s seen as a better gauge of everyday Americans’ standard of living. The index reveals “a story of economic stagnation as told by earnings.”

A recent Brookings Institution study also showed a vast increase in people living below the poverty line in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Kansas City and elsewhere. A census report adds to that, saying the ongoing economic woes have changed the face of poverty to adults ages 18 to 64.

They represent three of five poor people today and have replaced children who since the early 1970s had made up the main group living in poverty. Volunteers at the Lord’s Table and other soup kitchens see the change. It represents some of this country and this community’s worst suffering.

This is the bitter fruit from efforts begun during Ronald Reagan’s presidency to dismantle President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and the war on poverty. Soup kitchens, a fixture of the Great Depression, started showing up here and nationwide in the 1980s in the Reagan era.

Today they feed a growing number of people living near or in poverty. Nearly 47 million people lived in poverty in 2010, compared with 43.6 million in 2009 and 39.8 million folks in 2008.

The U.S. poverty rate has risen for four straight years. That is a sin in a country that professes to be a superpower and the world’s wealthiest nation.

America’s wealth flows to a select few. It is no wonder the Occupy Wall Street movement keeps growing in protest over the expanding wealth disparity and malignant joblessness. The American Human Development Index reported that “by the end of the 2007-2009 recession, unemployment among the bottom 10th of U.S. households — those with incomes below $12,500 — was 31 percent, a rate higher than unemployment in the worst year of the Great Depression.”

But for households with incomes of $150,000 and more, unemployment was just above 3 percent, which is considered full employment. In the last 25 years, the richest American households doubled their wealth from $9.2 million to $18.5 million in 2007 while two in five households lost ground, falling from $5,600 to $2,200, the index reported.

This inequality is unsustainable. The poverty rate is increasing for children under age 18 as well as working-age people. It was up for whites, but a higher percentage of blacks and Hispanics had fallen into poverty. Poverty decreased for people age 65 and older largely because of Social Security and Medicare. But the AARP Foundation noted that nearly 9 million Americans age 50 and older confront a risk of hunger.

People in that demographic also show up in larger numbers at the Lord’s Table. The report, “Food Insecurity Among Older Adults,” focuses on people age 50 to 59. It is the first of its type to look at that age group.

It found that baby boomers in this age bracket are vulnerable because they are too young for Social Security and Medicare and too old to qualify for social safety net programs designed for families with children. The report said that in 2009, 4.9 million people age 50 to 59 were at risk of hunger, a 38 percent increase from 2007.

The hunger risk for blacks and Hispanics is twice that of whites, and Missouri was one of 10 states with the highest rates of food insecurity for all people age 50 to 59. President Barack Obama’s plan for jobs has to change the downward spiral that has trapped many Americans or some restaurants will give way to more soup kitchens, and that way of “eating out” will become a new mainstay for Americans.

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