Archive for November 18th, 2008

Breaking the Fall: Building Local Safety Nets

Sharon November 18th, 2008

Well, the bad news keeps on building up, doesn’t it?  One of the most worrisome bits of bad news are the heavy burdens being placed upon already under-funded safety net programs.  Think about the statistics.

11.1% of American households regularly experienced food insecurity with hunger (32 % , or a full 1/3 of all Americans experience food insecurity, in that they don’t know if they will have enough food, but generally manage to make do – the 11.1% is the number of people who actually go to bed hungry on a regular basis) in the US in 2007, slightly up from 10.9% the year before.  That means that even before the recession hit, before food prices really spiked, we were already seeing a rise in real and serious hunger in the US.

But those statistics don’t tell the whole story.  Because between 2006 and 2007, the number of children who regularly experience hunger doubled.  Think about that.  We won’t have a full evaluation of the 2008 numbers for a year now, but they will be bad.

One out of every 10 Americans needs food stamps to get to the end of the month.  One out of every TWO infants in the US requires WIC supplementation.  Subsidized school lunch program rolls are rising rapidly, as much as 4% in some localities month over month.   At these numbers, we can no longer think of these programs as safety nets for unusual numbers of hungry – these are direct, government food subsidies to a nation that can no longer feed itself.  That is, it is now normal to need state subsidies to eat.

Now the good news is that the public and private safety net programs are mostly still holding. The folks who work for these programs and administer them generally are doing their best to get everyone who needs help under the umbrella.  I come from a family of teachers and social workers, housing advocates and eldercare workers - and people who often spend their weekends at the food pantry or the shelter. I know for a fact that while some of the people who do the hands-on work of making sure people have places to stay and food to eat and a decent education are jerks, most of them are totally committed.  They usually are paid badly and do difficult, stressful work because they don’t want to see anyone go hungry or cold.  And they are trying to stem the tide of crisis – and they are failing, and in the long term, bound to fail,  because no one can stop a tidal wave with linked arms.

For example, during the biggest donation season of the year, food pantries all over the country, including these ones in Ohio are short of turkeys, as well as basic food staples.  Most charities rely on donations made between Halloween and New Years all year ’round – that is, this is when people are most opening their purses, and the charities know they have to make what they get now last during the long winter and spring, when people donate less.  So the fact that their cupboards are bare now bodes very, very badly for the days to come.

Or consider the situation with state unemployment funds.  Right now several states, including my own New York (which is disproportionally dependent on Wall Street for funds), Nevada, Ohio and California may well not be able to pay unemployment claims within a very few months - just as the great wave of unemployment hits. Meanwhile, most state subsidized social programs, including the ones that help at-risk kids, the homeless and the desperately hungry are facing budget cuts, hiring freezes and occasionally the complete axing of a program.

 It is likely that the federal aid will be brought in – and just as likely that the scale of the economic crisis may well exceed the ability to remedy the problem.  The federal government has already spent trillions bailing out Wall Street – and now comes everyone else – states, counties, social service programs, nearly every industry.  They’ll all have a hand out, and the reality is that we can’t save everyone.

That is, we are only just seeing the beginning of the wave of unemployment and the economic crisis.  What has been largely a Wall Street Crisis is only now really percolating down into most of our lives.  And the changes that are coming are huge – changes in our culture, changes in our economy, changes in our sense of ourselves.  David Brooks, a New York Times conservative commentator who often annoys the heck out of me but is sometimes really, really right, put his finger beautifully on the issue in his column yesterday:

“In times of recession, people spend more time at home. But this will be the first steep recession since the revolution in household formation. Nesting amongst an extended family rich in social capital is very different from nesting in a one-person household that is isolated from family and community bonds. People in the lower middle class have much higher divorce rates and many fewer community ties. For them, cocooning is more likely to be a perilous psychological spiral.

In this recession, maybe even more than other ones, the last ones to join the middle class will be the first ones out. And it won’t only be material deprivations that bites. It will be the loss of a social identity, the loss of social networks, the loss of the little status symbols that suggest an elevated place in the social order. These reversals are bound to produce alienation and a political response. If you want to know where the next big social movements will come from, I’d say the formerly middle class. “

I think Brooks is right on the money here – and I don’t think it will just be the former middle class.  The baby boomers, who bought the idea that security comes from affluence, that that their future was more about money than their ties to family are likely to be angry and betrayed as their pensions and retirement funds vanish.  The unemployed are coming not just from service industries and new jobs, but from old, high paying ones in finance and insurance. 

And the safety nets will break, if this is bad enough.  They’ve been undercut for decades, going back to the Reagan administration, and we’ve already allocated a lot of our wealth into the vast black hole of Wall Street.  They are already strained, and things have only just begun.  Simultaneously, people will lose first their jobs, then the benefits they expect to sustain them, and finally very basic things like food security.  And the one thing that could have mitigated some of that suffering – community ties and social capital – are precisely what growth capitalism has spent the last 60 years ripping to shreds.

This is a lot of gloom and doom, but the key to mitigation is the restoration of the social and communal ties that Brooks is talking about.  There are two important reasons for this – the first is that as Brooks points out, there’s a big difference between staying home and eating beans and rice alone in your chilly house and getting together with your neighbors and sharing that meal.  The sense of loss and deprivation is very different – I know I keep mentioning this, but social scientists have confirmed what Timothy Breen the historian observes – that “rituals of non-consumption” can replace our rituals of consumption – if we come together.  That is, it can be a lot easier to bear tough times if you are working together with other people, and feel that they are in the same boat.

The second, and perhaps more urgent issue, is that our stability as a nation depends building layers of additional safety nets underneath the ones that break.  Think of poverty as a fall out a window.  Right now, there is a layer of safety net that catches a majority of people, although by no means all.  But what’s under those?  What happens if the traditional nets break?  We need those nets not only because protecting others from hunger, cold and suffering is the ethical thing to do, and not only because, as they say, the life you save may soon be your own, but because all of our personal security depends on our community security.  In hard times, crime rates go up, and people get angry.  Brooks is right to anticipate a movement of angry and frightened people, and when people are angry and frightened, we’re all vulnerable.

In a rational society, there are more layers to break your fall, and we’re going to need them.  First, there are formal structures at the community level – if your town never needed a food pantry because people could drive to the neighboring city, now is the time to propose it at your church, school or other possible site.  Think about ways you could adapt existing infrastructure – could the schools start distributing extra school lunches to the needy after the day is over?  Could your school establish a backpack program, sending food home for the weekend with the neediest kids?  Could you start a local gleaning program, or a senior lunch program?  If you have these structures, but they are struggling, what can you do to reinforce them?  Can you make another donation?  Start a fund drive?  What about setting up a bulletin-board system to bring families struggling to keep their homes together with people who need housing.  There are a thousand good ideas – yours is probably one of them. 

The next layer is the neighbor and community layer. I know we all worry about looking like busybodies, but now is the time to start looking in on your neighbors, and offering to help.  The way to do this is to talk to people, even before it looks like they need anything.  That way you’ll know if your elderly neighbor can no longer afford to drive to get her medication and you can offer to pick it up, or if a neighbor is out of work and might be glad to get a day’s pay helping a friend of yours winterize her house.  Being neighborly, and also gentle and unjudgemental is how you are going to know if someone in your neighborhood has no food in the pantry.  For every person who signs up for aid and accepts help, there are several who will rather go hungry than take institutional charity – but who will gladly come over and share a meal with their neighbor, or do you a favor and take that loaf of bread that you’ve got no where to store.

One of the most important things we can do is when we do spend money these days, spend it in our communities if at all possible. I know most of us aren’t going to be buying a lot of holiday gifts, but every dollar you can pass on to a neighbor, a local farmer or a local business that enriches your community is one that makes everyone more secure.  So maybe hire the out of work neighbor to plant and tend a garden for your sister, or give your best friend a farmstand gift certificate.

Finally, there’s family, or the people who function like one.  Those are the people who are standing there with their arms out at the base of your fall, and are prepared to risk something to catch you.  These are the people you can depend on when you have no place to go or no food in the pantry.  And as long as you have food and a place to sleep, try hard to be that person for close friends and extended family.  In fact, try hard to extend out the circle if you can a bit – there are a lot of vulnerable people out there who could use a hand up.  You don’t have to take in everyone, or treat everyone like family, but if each of us expands the category of people we will not allow to fall to the ground by one or two,  well, there’s hope for us yet.