It hides in plain sight in the hills of
Appalachia, the cozy suburbs of central Ohio and the urban streets of
Forty years after President Johnson came to
southern Ohio to declare War on Poverty, the old enemy is making a comeback.
But this is the new poverty.
It’s not about those living in shacks or
begging on the street, but about people from many walks of life who find
themselves, often unexpectedly, struggling to meet their most basic needs.
This new poverty shows its face in
Springfield, where a family of four eats popcorn and water for dinner — with
peanut butter if they’re lucky; in Athens County, where a husband and wife
work six jobs between them trying to make ends meet; and in Westerville, where
a young mother repeatedly glues her own shoes together so she has enough money
to buy new shoes for her two children.
But the most glaring evidence of Ohioans’
newfound struggles is the lengthening food lines across the state.
Dispatch reporters and photographers traveled
to food lines during one week to learn why this supposed relic of the Great
Depression has returned.
In that one week, from April 26 to May 1, the
number of Ohioans served by food pantries statewide — more than 150,000 —
would have filled Ohio Stadium one and a half times. Nearly 2 million pounds
of food were distributed — enough to fill 70 tractor-trailers.
The number of people seeking help at food
pantries statewide has risen three straight years.
The Ohio Association of Second Harvest
Foodbanks, which serves much of Ohio through 3,000 agencies, reported a 44
percent increase in people seeking assistance during the first three months of
this year compared with the last three months of 2003. At the same time, the
food available at pantries rose just 4 percent.
And now beleaguered families of reserve and
National Guard troops who have been stationed for months in Iraq or
Afghanistan are showing up in food lines.
Vince Chase of Catholic Social Services of
Clark, Champaign and Logan Counties, calls Ohio’s economic climate ‘‘Depressionlike,"
the worst he’s experienced in 30 years of helping people in need.
‘‘We’re seeing people who never thought they
would be in this situation. Half of them are working people who have 10 to 15
to 20 years of work experience but don’t have jobs. There are no jobs.
‘‘It shows how fragile things can be for
folks. You’re cruising along, and an illness, an accident, the loss of a job
can throw you into poverty. It doesn’t take much for even middle-class people.
Before you know it, you don’t have anything left."
In relatively affluent Butler County, where
unemployment was 4.2 percent in April, President Bush said during a May 4
campaign stop that ‘‘the life of the average Ohio citizen is improving." Yet
business is booming at The Lord’s Cupboard pantry in the county seat of
Hamilton, where the number seeking help nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2004.
It’s difficult to quantify those who have fallen into economic despair. Once
workers lose their jobs and exhaust unemployment benefits, no agency counts
them. When people go off welfare, the government doesn’t track whether they
have become self-sufficient — the mantra of welfare reform.
And nobody knows for certain how many people
line up for free food across the United States. The number seeking emergency
food nationwide from Catholic Charities USA and its partners has jumped about
20 percent annually in recent years, said Sharon Daly, the charity’s vice
president of social policy.
A U.S. Conference of Mayors survey of 25
cities in December 2003 found the demand at food pantries rose 17 percent over
2002. And the 2002 figure was 19 percent higher than the year before.
‘‘These folks have become invisible," said
Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family
Services. ‘‘Yet we all see them, no matter what you do. If you go to a retail
store, a nursing home, if you have a child in day care, you’re dealing with
someone who has trouble feeding themselves.
‘‘These people have done everything society
has asked them to do, and they are not seeing the rewards that society
Ohio’s new poor are not easily categorized.
They are young and out of work, old and
struggling with high medical bills, downsized or laid off from manufacturing
jobs, grandmothers raising grandchildren, couples working two or more low-wage
Most never thought they would be poor. Some
don’t consider themselves poor now, and they aren’t compared to many who
struggled through the Depression or reside in Third World countries.
Although pantries check income, advocates
acknowledge that a few less-deserving people sometimes slip through the food
lines. But for the vast majority, setting foot in a food line means overcoming
a stigma. They come because they are desperate.
Sheila Miller, who was laid off as a
$36,000-a-year supervisor of an assisted-living company, came to a Logan
pantry for the first time recently. Her husband works at a Haydenville
sawmill, but the couple with two young children is having a hard time.
‘’It’s embarrassing to come here," said
Miller, 30. ‘‘It makes me feel ignorant — like I’m trash, and I’m not.
‘‘Hopefully, there’ll be some things in here
my kids will eat," she said after her car was loaded with food.
Ginger Walls’ unemployment ran out in
February, leaving the single mother of two from Carbon Hill in Hocking County
with $500 a month in child support and $359 in food stamps.
‘‘I’ve got a lot of stuff at the pawn shop,
and I borrow from my dad to pay the bills until the child support comes," she
Since being laid off from her $10-an-hour job
at Anchor Hocking in Lancaster nearly a year ago, Walls, 32, has been listed
with three different temporary services; no one is hiring.
Mark Craig, 38, retired with a disability
because of a back injury, relies on a food pantry to feed his wife and three
They have a monthly income of $1,993 from
Social Security disability and family benefits. That’s about $24,000 a year —
slightly above the federal poverty level for a family of five.
But after paying bills, the family has little
left for food.
‘‘There’s been many times we’ve had popcorn
and water for dinner, or popcorn and peanut butter. That’s no joke," said
Craig, who gets food from a Springfield pantry.
‘‘Honest to God, I don’t know what we’d do
without this place."
Pointing to statistics showing 30,000 new jobs have been created since Jan. 1,
Gov. Bob Taft says Ohio’s economy is beginning to rebound. But he acknowledges
hardship and suffering.
‘‘We know what the economic recession and
downturn did. There are a lot of people out of work . . . You have increases
in the number of working poor, struggling to make ends meet."
State government has tried to help, Taft said,
increasing aid to food banks to $4.5 million a year from $2.5 million;
donating 450,000 meals through the state employee Operation Feed program;
administering $1.3 billion in federal money for food stamps, school lunches
and other programs; and increasing the number of children covered under the
Children’s Health Insurance Program.
‘‘The answer to this is education . . .
Upgrading the skills lev- els has got to be the central part of the strategy
to help people, so this hardship is more of a transitional rather than a
permanent hardship," Taft said.
As fever is a symptom of disease, hunger is a
symptom of poverty.
U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show
‘‘food insecurity" — defined as being uncertain of having enough food for the
household — is on the rise.
In 2002, the most recent year for which
figures are available, 34.9 million Americans experienced ‘‘food insecurity"
some time during the year. That’s up from 31 million in 1999.
‘‘This is not the recession of the ’70s, ’80s
or ’90s," said Lisa Hamler-Podolski of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest
Foodbanks. ‘‘They pale in comparison . . . It’s the worst I’ve ever seen.
‘‘Our food pantries and soup kitchens are
merely a barometer of where we are in this state. I fear the worst is yet to
Hunger is more than an aching belly.
David H. Holben, an associate professor of
human and consumer sciences at Ohio University, found that families facing
regular food insecurity had more illnesses, fatigue and depression. Children’s
cognitive and academic abilities were impaired, too.
‘‘In southeastern Ohio," Holben said, ‘‘there
are kids who leave school on Friday afternoon and don’t have a good meal until
they come back to school on Monday morning."
Meanwhile, some charities are stretched to the
At the Friends and Neighbors Community Choice
Food Center in southern Athens County, near the Ohio River, free hot lunches
are served to about 200 people and groceries go to 500 people each month — all
on a $200 monthly budget.
When food ran out last summer, the center was
forced to close for two weeks. More recently, those seeking help received only
apples, potatoes and eggs made available through the state’s agriculture
In Franklin County, the Salvation Army’s
fastest growing chapel is in Worthington Woods on the Far North Side, where
the demand for food and clothing assistance tripled since last year.
‘‘Many families who live in the area have
experienced increases in the cost of rent and food, while their wages have
stayed static or declined," said Michelle Hannan, social services coordinator
for the Salvation Army.
The chapel is now open 20 hours a week and
helps about 65 families a month.
Return of old enemy
In 1964, President Johnson launched his War on Poverty during a series of
speeches, including one at Ohio University in Athens. He called for solutions
‘‘which have eluded mankind since the beginning of time."
Four decades later, the answers remain
‘‘America has never been wealthier as a
nation, as real per capita income today is about twice that of the early
1970s, but millions of workers still have difficulty earning enough to support
their families," said Sheldon Danziger, a professor at the University of
Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.
George Zeller, senior researcher at the
nonprofit, nonpartisan Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater
Cleveland, said as Ohio’s large manufacturing base has shrunk, it has become
more difficult for people to work their way out of poverty. That’s because
traditional blue-collar jobs paying much above minimum wage are disappearing.
At the same time, Ohio’s personal-income
growth ranked last among the 50 states from April 2002 to April 2003,
according to Washington-based State Policy Reports.
The economy and jobs will be the domestic
flashpoint of the 2004 presidential election.
President Bush maintains that the economy
remains capable of generating plenty of goodpaying jobs and is leaping out of
recession and back into boom times, thanks in large part to his 2001 and 2003
During a speech in Dayton last month, Bush
said ‘‘there are still people who hurt, and I understand that. There are
people in parts of Ohio who haven’t felt the recovery yet. But we’re getting
Presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry says
much more can be done to help lowand middle-income Americans get ahead. He
backs the middleclass tax cuts but wants to repeal tax cuts for those making
$200,000 and up.
During an April campaign stop in Cincinnati,
Kerry announced an economic plan he says would create 10 million new jobs in
the next four years, including more than 400,000 in Ohio.
‘‘In America, a rising tide is supposed to
lift all boats — but in the Bush tide, the middleclass boat is taking on
water," Kerry said.
As for John Life, 68, a volunteer at the
Coolville pantry, he fears hard times from the past are knocking at the door.
‘‘Things were rough in my day. I once
supported three families driving a cab," Life said. ‘‘It’s getting that way
Back to Top
Sunday, June 06, 2004; Catherine Candisky
and Jonathan Riskind; The Columbus Dispatch
Not everyone agrees that poverty and hunger are
making a comeback, including the head of the federal food program for
the Bush administration.
Eric Bost, U.S. Agriculture Department
undersecretary for food and nutrition service, is dubious of claims made
by advocates for the hungry about increasing needs.
‘‘There’s a bump, but how much of that is due to
people taking the easy way out? I don’t know," he said.
Bost is even skeptical of ‘‘food insecurity"
statistics gleaned from a survey done by his own agency, saying the
questions were prepared during the Clinton administration.
‘‘Everyone likes that (survey) except me."
Bost said some of the survey questions are too vague
and likely inflate the numbers.
He pointed to such questions as ‘‘Do you know what
your next meal will be?" and ‘‘Are you satisfied with the food you have
‘‘If you ask any teenager if they’re happy about the
food they have in their house, what will they say?" he asked.
Further, Bost said, the increases in food-stamp
recipients and those showing up in food lines don’t necessarily mean
there are more needy people.
Food-stamp enrollment is up largely due to
government outreach to eligible people, he said. Pantries typically
don’t require documentation of income, so not everyone receiving
provisions is truly in need, Bost said.
Others said that despite growing lines at food
pantries in Ohio and elsewhere, the number of poor hasn’t increased
dramatically. Similarly, they contend that those who are needy aren’t
living in extreme poverty.
They point out that some have cable or satellite
‘‘If poverty means lacking nutritious food, adequate
warm housing and clothing for a family, relatively few of the 35 million
people identified as being ‘in poverty’ by the Census Bureau could be
characterized as poor," said a January report from the Washington-based
Authors Robert E. Rector and Kirk A. Johnson contend
that the government’s definition of poverty doesn’t give the full
picture of government assistance and assets — such as televisions, air
conditioning and cars — enjoyed by American families defined as
‘‘While material hardship does exist in the United
States," they wrote, ‘‘it is quite restricted in scope and severity."
Copyright © 2004, The Columbus Dispatch