State of Hunger 

The number of people who struggle to put food on the table rose dramatically during the Great Recession, but not everyone who needs help is getting it.

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Hunger is also the face and voice of Graciela R., who lives in the hardscrabble LA suburb of Sylmar. The fifty-year-old mother of two used to scrape by with jobs in laundromats, but she has been unemployed since the start of the recession. She and her husband once brought in nearly $2,000 a month, but today they squeak by on the $700 a month that her husband earns repairing windows in cars. How much money does she have? "The three dollars in my purse," she answered in Spanish, laughing as if to say "What can you do?"

For food, the family of four lives on the food stamps that one of her two children is eligible for, and food boxes given out by the community group Meet Each Need with Dignity, in the nearby town of Pacoima, as well as neighborhood churches. She and her husband sometimes miss meals to make sure that their children have enough to eat.

Hunger is also the face of Matthew Joseph, a middle-aged steel worker and church deacon, brought to the edge of destitution by Stockton's collapsed housing market combined with a long spell of unemployment in the first years of the recession. "You realize that everything you've worked for can be gone, completely gone," Joseph said, as he recounted his struggle to keep his home and to put food on the table for his wife and himself. "I had to start looking for things in my lifestyle where I could say, 'We can't do this any longer.' I was always looking to say, 'What can I get out of this meal? What can I make that will last me not just a meal but two meals?' I need to be able to think of everything; think what we're doing in life, what we're doing for our house. Where do I come up with money for food, PG&E, garbage, and everything else?"

At his church, Joseph said he was struck "by the amount of people at Christmas or Thanksgiving not looking for presents but just looking for food. I hear these stories at the Cathedral day in and day out."

This changing face of hunger became particularly noticeable in 2008, recalled Blake Young, executive director of the Sacramento Food Bank, as he detailed demographic shifts in his clientele in recent years. Throughout 2009 and most of 2010, the total number of food bank clients — men, women, and children who can be seen lining city blocks on mornings that the banks and pantries distribute free food — continued to grow. And even after the total numbers stabilized, the number of "ex-middle-income, first-time visitors has gone through the roof," Young noted. "And it's growing every day."

Yet for all of the "food insecurity" in California, actual hunger would be far more extensive without government programs in place to tackle the problem; or were those programs replaced by block grants, as an increasing number of Republican politicians are advocating.

Food stamps are the one part of the social safety net that, for those enrolled, still works well. The program keeps people from hunger, being available to all legal residents who are at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line (though individual states can determine what value of assets, such as cars, applicants are allowed to hang on to). The availability and usage of food-stamp benefits increase during recessions with the federal government currently bankrolling the program to the tune of approximately $65 billion per year. And it can help to keep local economies afloat during downtimes, while being flexible enough to deal with the needs of individuals and families in a multitude of ways.

The benefits are given to clients via the EBT card, which means that once the messiness of enrolment is over the delivery of services is actually pretty efficient. And unlike the old paper vouchers, modern EBT benefits are hard to sell, thus eliminating, or at least much reducing, black markets around their usage, and making sure the benefits get spent properly on food — especially food for children.

That's one reason that the GOP attacks against food stamps in recent months, by Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum on the presidential campaign trail, and by Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who proposed replacing food stamps with capped block grants to the states, haven't resonated.

People in America don't tend to like welfare programs in the abstract, but when it comes to specifics, food stamps and other nutritional programs actually enjoy pretty high levels of support. Polling data quoted by the Food Research and Action Center shows that nearly 90 percent of Americans believe that "those who are unable to earn enough money for food should be helped by others"; in 2003, the Alliance to End Hunger found that seven in ten voters say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who proposed cuts to the school-lunch program and found that 63 percent of voters would be less likely to vote for a politician who proposed cutting food stamps.


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