The House Agriculture Committee in Congress is haggling over a proposal that would eliminate food assistance for up to 2 million to 3 million Americans and take food off the school lunch table for 280,000 children from low-income families.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that Saint Paul’s East Side lies within a food desert. I was surprised to learn that Walnut Grove, Minnesota, my home town, does too. In fact, so does much of southwestern Minnesota, home to some of Minnesota’s highest corn producing counties. Food deserts are a state-wide Minnesota issue, not an urban or rural problem.
A food desert is an area underserved by large grocery stores or supermarkets. Fewer stores create barriers to a healthy diet because fresh fruits, vegetables and greens are harder to find in smaller, convenience stores. Poverty creates and maintains food deserts as poor people, restricted by access to independent transportation and reliant on public transit, lack easy access to the elements of affordable, healthy food.
In other words, without a car, individual consumers spend more time and money traveling to and from supermarkets. Time consumption magnifies poverty as diminishing household resources are disproportionately consumed by something as simple as a supermarket run. Since jumping in a non-existent car for a twenty or thirty minute round trip is impossible, that same activity can turn into a two or three hour time suck.
Poverty reinforces poverty as a fewer options for living wage jobs, safe housing, secure neighborhoods, robust community services and affordable healthcare disappear, creating a self-sustaining cycle. Fewer options in turn minimize opportunity until the only reasonable prediction is that a multigenerational poor neighborhood will remain a poor neighborhood. The food desert is one element creating and sustaining poverty’s downward cycle.
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Angela Baerthel wants off of public assistance, but that’s proved difficult. She was laid off her job in 2010 and even a small business effort hasn’t worked out. “I don’t want my kids to be on welfare,’’ she says.
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Poverty measures, new or old, are set very low. They are also complex, with 48 possible categories, ranging from single individual under 65 ($11,334) and single individual over 65 ($10,458) to a couple under 65 ($14,218) or two parents and two children ($22,113). If you pay rent or have a mortgage, it’s clear that poverty income means not enough money to live on.
Millions of people who are above the poverty line still struggle to get by. The new number to watch is the “near poor” — people whose incomes place them at 100-150% of the poverty line.
Down but not quite out, these Americans form a diverse group sometimes called “near poor” and sometimes simply overlooked — and a new count suggests they are far more numerous than previously understood.
When the Census Bureauthis month released anew measure of poverty, meant to better count disposable income, it began altering the portrait of national need. Perhaps the most startling differences between the old measure and the new involves data the government has not yet published, showing 51 million people with incomes less than 50 percent above the poverty line. That number of Americans is 76 percent higher than the official account, published in September. All told, that places 100 million people — one in three Americans — either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it.
Almost half of the people with incomes below the poverty line are working (more than half, if you use the new supplemental poverty measure.) Millions of people work full-time and year-round and still fall below the poverty line. Logically, even more of the near poor are working.
According to Census figures, 10.9 percent of Minnesotans fell below the poverty line in 2009. That number has probably increased.
Food stamp (SNAP) use in Minnesota increased by 20 percent from 2009 to 2010. That’s about 26,000 new people, for an estimated total of 158,090 Minnesotans relying on food stamps in 2010, 7.6 percent of all Minnesotans.
Child poverty in Minnesota increased, too, from 14.1 percent to 15.2 percent. That’s a small increase, though probably not so small for the 18,000 children newly falling below the poverty line. The truly shocking numbers for children in poverty didn’t change much either: 10 percent of white children in Minnesota are poor, compared to 46 percent of black children, 24 percent of Asian children, and 29 percent of Hispanic children.
Some people argue that poverty figures are deceptive and being poor isn’t so bad because poor people get government assistance with food stamps, housing subsidies, etc. (Of course, that ignores the years-long waiting list for housing assistance, which means most people who are income-eligible will never get it.) Partially in response to this argument, the Census Bureau has devised a new “Supplemental Poverty Measure,” which adds in various forms of government assistance and subtracts taxes, work expenses and out-of-pocket medical expenses. It’s not an official measure, but it does give additional information.
That additional information doesn’t support the argument that government benefits lift them out of poverty. While applying the supplemental measure raises some families above the poverty line, it also drops others below the line. The net result: more people classified as poor — 15.8 per cent by the supplemental method vs. 14.5 percent by the official measure in 2009.
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