The Failure of America
This article's from the Guardian UK (november 3.) http://www.guardian.co.uk/uselections2004/story/0,13918,1076608,00.html
Thank god I have the internet, how else would I find the international media. Where, occasionally, they tell it like it is. I'd be struck with that sappy, vanilla home-grown crap. Tomorrow they're gonna tell us how screwed up healthcare is here.
Long queue at drive-in soup kitchen
George Bush's America, the wealthiest nation in history, faces a growing poverty crisis. In the first of a three-part series Julian Borger takes the pulse of the US with elections just a year away
Monday November 3, 2003
The free food is handed out at nine, but the queue starts forming hours earlier. By dawn, there is a line of cars stretching half a mile back. In Logan, it is what passes for rush hour - a traffic jam driven by poverty and hunger.
The cars come out of the Ohio hills in all shapes and sizes, from the old jalopies of the chronically poor, to the newer, sleeker models of the new members of the club, who only months ago considered themselves middle class, before jobs and their retirement funds evaporated.
Dan Larkin is sitting in his middle-of-the-range pick-up truck. Since the glassware company he worked for closed its doors this time last year, he has found it hard to pay his bills. His unemployment benefits ran out six months ago and his groceries bill is the only part of his budget that has some give. He and his wife sometimes skip meals or eat less to make sure their six-year-old daughter has enough.
"I would have a real problem putting food on the table if it wasn't for this," Mr Larkin said, his car inching towards Logan's church-run food pantry. As the queue rolled forward, he reflected on the ironies of being a citizen of the world's sole superpower.
"They're sending $87bn to the second richest oil nation in the world but can't afford to feed their own here in the States."
George Bush's America is the wealthiest and most powerful nation the world has ever known, but at home it is being gnawed away from the inside by persistent and rising poverty. The three million Americans who have lost their jobs since Mr Bush took office in January 2001 have yet to find new work in a largely jobless recovery, and they are finding that the safety net they assumed was beneath them has long since unravelled. There is not much left to stop them falling.
Last year alone, another 1.7 million Americans slipped below the poverty line, bringing the total to 34.6 million, one in eight of the population. Over 13 million of them are children. In fact, the US has the worst child poverty rate and the worst life expectancy of all the world's industrialised countries, and the plight of its poor is worsening.
The ranks of the hungry are increasing in step. About 31 million Americans were deemed to be "food insecure" (they literally did not know where their next meal was coming from). Of those, more than nine million were categorised by the US department of agriculture as experiencing real hunger, defined by the US department of agriculture as an "uneasy or painful sensation caused by lack of food due to lack of resources to obtain food."
That was two years ago, before the recession really began to bite. Partial surveys suggest the problem has deepened considerably since then. In 25 major cities the need for emergency food rose an average of 19% last year.
Another indicator is the demand for food stamps, the government aid programme of last resort. The number of Americans on stamps has risen from 17 million to 22 million since Mr Bush took office.
In Ohio, hunger is an epidemic. Since George Bush won Ohio in the 2000 presidential elections, the state has lost one in six of its manufacturing jobs. Two million of the state's 11 million population resorted to food charities last year, an increase of more than 18% from 2001.
In Logan, over 500 families regularly turn out twice monthly at the food pantry run by the Smith Chapel United Methodist Church.
"In all our history starting in the mid-80s we've never seen these numbers," said Dannie Devol, who runs the pantry. The food comes from a regional food bank, which is stocked by a mix of private donations and food bought from local farmers by the government.
Fresh vegetables, cans of meat and tuna, and boxes of cereal are stacked in the car park and as the line of cars breaks into two queues to edge past the pallets, volunteers inspect identity cards (customers have to show they live in the county and are in need) before loading rations of food into the backs of the vehicles. It is an efficient and peculiarly American solution to hunger - a drive-through soup kitchen.
Those without cars hitch rides with neighbours. Mothers come with their children in the back of trucks. Karin Chriss brought one of her three children in a 10-year-old Chevrolet van. "If they stopped this I'd be hurt food-wise. I'm cutting down the amount we eat as it is," Mrs Chriss said. Her husband is a truck driver but does not earn enough to pay the bills. The people in Washington, she says, "need to come down and see how many people are in these lines".
Not many Washington politicians do. There was a time when fighting this kind of poverty was at the core of American politics: Franklin Roosevelt made it his life's work; Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty with his Great Society programmes in the 1960s.
There are more Americans living in poverty now than there were in 1965, but neither party has much to say about it. The Bush Republicans see it as a matter for "faith-based charities", the status quo before Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s. The trouble is that hard times are drying up donations at the very time private charities are being asked to take on most of the burden.
Democrats, meanwhile, are anxious not to appear as class warriors, and most of the Democratic presidential contenders in this election portray themselves as champions of the middle class, for good reason. Americans who see themselves as middle class are much more likely to vote than those who know they are poor. Mrs Chriss thinks all parties should be abolished. Angela Cooper, also queuing with a young child, complains that families like hers have been forgotten. But then again, she has relatives posted in Iraq and feels she ought to "support our troops" by voting for the president.
"There's resentment down deep but people don't know what to do with it. A lot of people turn inward, rather than outward. You think it would be ripe for an outcry. But it's not, it's all kind of dulled," said Bob Garbo, who runs a regional food distribution centre in this corner of Ohio. "There's a feeling you can't do much about it, that politicians are all bad. Voting rates are down, and politicians are taking advantage of that. Here, only 20% turn out to vote in some counties."
It is hardly surprising the very poor feel they have no one to turn to. A string of local factories have closed in the past two years to relocate to Mexico, a delayed consequence of the North American Free Trade Agreement established by Bill Clinton in 1994. And two years later, it was Clinton, in cooperation with a staunchly Republican Congress, who dismantled much of the welfare system built in the New Deal and the Great Society. Clinton's welfare reform set a time limit on how long the poor and unemployed could draw social security payments. It helped force people back into work with the encouragement of an array of federally funded job training programmes.
It worked well while the economy was booming, cutting the number on welfare from 12 million to five million in a few years. But now there are no jobs. Those who went to work under welfare reform are among the first to be fired, and often find that welfare is no longer available to them. Some have used up their lifetime maximum. Some have accumulated too many assets to qualify, such as a car or a house that they do not want to sell for fear of falling yet further into destitution.
Others have had difficulty dealing with the welfare system's more demanding requirements. A few in the line at Logan said they were struggling without success to extract vital documents from former employers, who have either gone bankrupt or gone abroad.
So, while poverty rates have been rising in the past few years, the number of Americans on welfare has been steadily declining. Another impact of the 1996 welfare reform was that the unemployed were obliged to take service jobs at the minimum wage (now $5.15 per hour) without benefits such as paid holidays or health insurance. On paper they were part of the success of the welfare-to-work project, but the jobs stocking supermarket shelves or cleaning offices usually left them worse off, especially if someone in the family fell sick.
In Ohio, according to Lisa Hamler-Podolski, more than 40% of the people in the food lines are the working poor.
The harsh impact of welfare reform was initially mitigated by the 90s boom and Clinton-era social programmes to support the working poor and retrain the unemployed. Those programmes are now disappearing under an administration which fundamentally does not believe government should have a direct role in alleviating poverty.
Melissa Pardue, a specialist on poverty at the market-oriented Heritage Foundation, reflects the beliefs of many in the administration when she argues welfare reform has not gone far enough. "The impact of the recession would have been far greater without welfare reform," she said. "The people who continue to be affected are not working. People who choose not to get a job are not going to see more income. It's all the more reason to give greater incentives to looking for work."
The government still distributes food stamps, but they are worth on average only about $160 (£100) a month, not enough to buy food for a family with no other income. Furthermore, more than 10 million "food insecure" Americans, at risk from hunger, do not apply for them. Often they are unaware they are eligible. Welfare reform pushed them out of a system that they have lost contact with.
A study this year by Washington-based think tank the Urban Institute found that 63% of this forgotten category sometimes or often run out of food each month. All these factors explain why, although the current slump in America has not been as deep as the last major recession a decade ago, the food lines this time are longer. They also explain why hunger remains a largely invisible problem. The Americans in the food lines often do not show up in the statistics and usually do not turn up for elections.
"Hunger is a hidden thing," said Lynn Brantley, who runs a food bank in Washington where the very poor live within sight of Congress. "It's something we don't really want to look at. We don't want to admit it."
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