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Published: Sunday, 10/3/2004

Ranks of area's 'invisible' poor are increasing

BY KARAMAGI RUJUMBA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Gary Robertson was laid off from his warehouse job eight months ago.

With no steady income and the bills piling up, he soon lost his apartment.

A couple of friends put him up for a while, but that didn't last for long. So one day, he was finally forced to do something he never imagined: He spent a night at a men's homeless shelter at the Cherry Street Mission.

"I was homeless and that was hard for me to accept. I had never been to a food pantry or a shelter," said Mr. Robertson, a native of Alabama who moved to Findlay 17 years ago and got a job at an area warehouse.

"I was doing well until I lost my job," Mr. Robertson said. He came to Toledo hoping for better luck in a larger city, but has since failed to find a regular job here.

He has been working odd jobs to make his portion of the rent for an apartment he shares. When he needs food, he goes to the Cherry Street Mission's food pantry.

Mr. Robertson is far from alone.

"We are seeing an increasing number of people who rely on pantries and soup kitchens, especially this year," said Lisa Hamler-Podolski, the executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks, a Columbus-based agency that donates food to food banks across the state.

A U.S. Census Bureau report released last month confirmed what many volunteers at area food pantries and soup kitchens have known for a long time - that more people in Ohio and Michigan live in poverty today than in past years.

Poverty is defined in terms of family size and income. For 2003, the Census Bureau reported that a family of four living on a total annual income of $18,810 or less is considered to be in poverty. And statistical benchmarks show poverty is on the rise in Toledo, Ohio, and Michigan:

  • In the last Census report, Toledo was ranked eighth among cities that have the highest number of children living in poverty.

  • A recent population survey from the Census Bureau found that 12.1 percent of Ohioans were living in poverty in 2003, up from 11.9 percent in 2002, and 11 percent in 2001. In Michigan, 11.4 percent of the population was living in poverty last year, compared to 11.6 percent in 2002 and 9.4 percent in 2001.

  • In 2003, the Toledo-Northwest Ohio Food Bank, Inc., reported that the various food pantries and soup kitchens to which it distributed served 28,000 households. By the end of the first six months of 2004, the same pantries and kitchens reported that 40,000 households were dependent on their services.

    "The people we are talking about appear to be invisible, but you see them everyday. They serve you at restaurants, take care of your parents in nursing homes, and make your beds in hotels," Ms. Hamler-Podolski said. "They are the new poor. People who have always had jobs and now, due to plant closings and downsizing, find themselves struggling to put food on the table."

    Julie Chase Morefield, the director of marketing and operations at the Toledo-Northwest Ohio Food Bank, agreed.

    "The demand at area pantries and kitchens is way up and it has been a problem finding enough food to distribute," she said. Her agency serves 330 pantries and soup kitchens in eight northwest Ohio counties, including Lucas, Defiance, Fulton, Henry, Ottawa, Sandusky, Williams, and Wood counties.

    "It is worse than we have ever seen it. We've never really seen numbers this high," Ms. Morefield said. "There are a lot of people out there who are really struggling."

    John Urban, a retired vacuum cleaner salesman is one of them.

    Standing in line for a food bag at the Helping Hands of Saint Louis pantry in East Toledo one recent Tuesday morning, Mr. Urban said his Social Security income of $900 a month no longer was enough to sustain him.

    "I come here once a month and they give me enough food to last a couple of weeks," said the 64-year-old, who was born on the city's east side.

    After showing his proof of residence and income, Mr. Urban, was handed a brown bag stuffed with loaves of bread, bagels, macaroni, spaghetti sauce, several cans of soup, and powdered milk.

    The line at the pantry on this particular morning was not very long. That is because it was the beginning of the month, said Linda Lupien, the director of Helping Hands.

    "The middle and the end of the month are usually very tough because that's when people run out of money," Ms. Lupien said. "We are seeing new faces every day and people who are hitting the pantry line because they simply cannot make it anymore."

    Al Baumann, a retired pastor at Saint Mark's Lutheran Church in East Toledo, is the director of the Toledo Area Council of Churches, which runs the Feed Your Neighbor program.

    "There are a lot more people in Toledo who rely on food donations. You see them everyday, but you just don't know it," Mr. Baumann, said. "We serve more than 30,000 families a year through our program."

    Feed Your Neighbor is a food voucher system involving 12 Toledo churches that was started in 1975, when the council of churches started distributing emergency food supplies because of the drastic economic downturn of the 1970s. While the current economic climate is not as dire, Mr. Baumann said the number of people in need of food is growing every month.

    "We're finding more people, even in the suburbs, who can no longer make ends meet," he said. "A lot of people are not aware of the economic hardships their neighbors might be experiencing because of the way that we are economically segregated as a society."

    Drastic cuts in federal government subsidies to food stamp and similar programs serving the poor is another reason that more people are lining up at food pantries, Mr. Baumann said.

    According to the Lucas County Department of Jobs and Family Services, there are now 27,784 households receiving food stamps and 4,574 families on cash assistance through the Ohio Works First program.

    The county has seen a steady increase in the number of people seeking cash and food assistance, said Cindy Ginter, the program manager at Lucas County's Department of Jobs and Family Services. In 2003, the county had 25,286 households on food-stamp rolls and 3,736 families on cash assistance.

    "We would like to not have seen this kind of increase, but because of the economy, the numbers just keep increasing," Ms. Ginter said.

    The sluggish economy also is cited by the county's Women, Infants, and Children program for the record number of low-income earning families that depend on its services, said Tom Kuhn, the agency's director.

    In 1999, WIC, an agency of the Ohio Department of Health's Bureau of Nutrition Services, served 12,326 families in the county. This year, that number has jumped to more than 15,000 families.

    "The numbers have been steadily rising, but this is the highest they have ever been," Mr. Kuhn said.

    Sheldon Danziger, a professor of public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, said the federal and state governments are not doing enough to stave the rising numbers of people living in poverty.

    The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services came under fire last week because $431 million in federally-allocated funds have been sitting unused for months in the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families account. Director Tom Hayes confirmed the funds are being held while the state and counties design programs to spend the money.

    Mr. Danziger argued that it isn't because of a failure of antipoverty programs that poverty has remained high for Americans since the 1970s.

    He said it's because the economy has not delivered the benefits of prosperity to all workers, and because politicians and the public have lost faith in the ability of government to deal with the problem of poverty.

    "Wage stagnation is one of the reasons that we still see people lining up at food pantries," Mr. Danziger said.

    "Since the 1990s, labor market changes have meant that workers with a high school education or less have had wage rates that have not grown relative to the rate of inflation."

    He said the government has failed to implement public policies like a higher minimum wage adjusted for inflation, which would be the quickest way to help people who are struggling.

    The last time the minimum wage was adjusted was in 1997, when it was raised to $5.15 per hour. If it were to be adjusted to current inflation, the professor said, the minimum wage would be $6.10 per hour.

    Mr. Danziger said the gap between the rich and poor is not only increasing here, but in many developing nations of the world where more than a billion people continue to face extreme poverty.

    According to a report released by the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization in February, more than a billion people lived on less than $1 per day in 2000.

    The commission, which was established in 2002 by the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, reported the gap between the richest and poorest countries has widened dramatically in the past four decades.

    In the U.S., increasing unemployment benefits and implementing more tax credit programs for low-wage earners would be a critical step in helping the unemployed get back on their feet, Mr. Danziger said.

    According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank, 17 states and the District of Columbia so far have enacted earned income tax credits for low income residents, which supplement the federal government credits.

    Ohio and Michigan, however, are not among them.

    These tax credits, Mr. Danziger argued, go a long way in meeting day-to-day expenses for low-wage earners.

    George Garcia, a Toledo truck driver, said he could have used some help when he almost lost his house after breaking both his legs in an accident that left him unemployed for more than six months.

    "I was down to the last week and $1,500 behind on my mortgage. I had to tell the children that we were about to lose our home," said the 39-year-old father of three.

    After borrowing from several friends, he kept the family's home. But because he had no health insurance, he spent all his money on medical bills and had to turn to the Cherry Street pantry for food.

    "The pantry was great. I always got enough food and when I took it home, it was like I had just come from the grocery store," he said.

    Though he now makes enough to support his family most of the time, Mr. Garcia acknowledged that "every now and then, I have to go to the pantry to get by."

    Contact Karamagi Rujumba at: krujumba@theblade.com or 419-724-6064.



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