The Lines of Despair - The New Poor in Ohio

A week long series published by The Columbus Dispatch (June 2004)


Lines of Despair - view the rest of the series


DAY 1:

Problems run deep

DAY 2:

Single moms struggle

  • Hunger and poverty exist in the suburbs of Columbus

DAY 3:

Wages are too low

  • Scraping by - The Burden of the working poor

DAY 4:

Sharing is vital

  • Extended family strains budget to make ends meet

DAY 5:

Jobs disappear

  • Unemployed are consumed with fear

DAY 6:

Welfare void unfilled

  • There is not guarantee in getting off welfare

DAY 7:

Helpers need help

  • Couple continues to give in time of trouble


  • The Dispatch tells how more people need help in seeking food in a changing economy


  • Democrats want Bush appointee to resign

  • Kindness pours in from as far as California

  • Official says federal aid is a better option than food pantries

  • Lunch programs come up short in local suburbs


Over the brink and into poverty

THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH, Sunday, June 6, 2004, Alan Johnson, Catherine Candisky and Jonathan Riskind

Cars move through the Smith Chapel United Methodist Food Pantry in Logan to pick up food from federal surplus programs and Ohio residents, food drives and companies.

Despite assurances that food won’t run out, people start lining up two hours before the opening of Smith Chapel United Methodist Food Pantry in Hocking County.

It hides in plain sight in the hills of Appalachia, the cozy suburbs of central Ohio and the urban streets of Columbus.

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.

Invisible Americans
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 promised."

Daily struggles
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 jobs.

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 said.

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 children.

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."

Gains and losses
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 come."

Difficult choices
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 breaking point.

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 surplus program.

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 elusive.

‘‘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 tax cuts.

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 better."

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 again."

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