Working poor, working hungry

Joyce Harris sits with her three daughters at a round table at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen eating sloppy joes, mixed vegetables and a Rice Krispies treat for desert. She began taking her daughters there when it opened in her neighborhood last January.

"We come here every night," says the single mom.

Many families fill the 40 or so large white tables in the spacious hall. It is well-lit and surprisingly cheerful. Children laugh and moms and dads talk about their day, as if they were eating at home. Some folks wave to one another, but Harris' family keeps to itself.

Monday through Friday, she and her 5-, 9- and 11-year-old eat their dinner here. On Saturday, if Harris is working, her mother takes the girls there on the bus for breakfast and lunch. This is how she survives on a $7-an-hour wages. Harris is one of the many working poor who increasingly turn to charity for meals because they cannot afford to buy food for their families.

Second Harvest, the nation's largest food bank network, supplies pantries and soup kitchens in all 50 states. Last year, the group provided food for 26 million people, nearly 10 percent of the population. Of those, 39 percent were working.

"It is so unbelievable with the economy doing so well," says Second Harvest spokesperson Stacey Reineking. "The economy is benefiting a lot of people, but not everyone."

One factor here is welfare reform. For people receiving family assistance, the clock started ticking when President Bill Clinton enacted welfare reform in 1996. The new law imposed a five-year lifetime limit on families receiving public assistance. Coupled with Gov. John Engler's two-year-old policy requiring the heads of families to work 20 hours a week to receive state assistance, this forced many Michigan recipients off welfare and into low-paying jobs.

Studies have not yet made clear how much hunger is a direct consequence of welfare reform. But those who have watched the growing lines at soup kitchens believe it is significant.

Ready for disaster

Anticipating the fallout of the welfare changes, the Capuchin Soup Kitchen began preparations months in advance for the kitchen that opened in January, says development director Gerry Brisson. According to Brisson, it's primarily families who are served at the facility, which provides breakfast, lunch and dinner six days a week in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

"We are definitely seeing what we thought," he says. "The numbers show it."

Between 1,200 and 1,800 meals are served each day, between 400 and 600 of them to children. A decrease was expected in the number of people eating at the original Capuchin Soup Kitchen on Mount Elliott, which serves between 600 and 800 meals daily, when the new one opened, but that didn't happen.

"We did not lose a single person," he says.

It is not clear whether welfare reform has contributed to the large number of working poor families eating at the new soup kitchen, says Brisson. He explains that the Capuchins want those served treated with dignity, so there is a policy of not asking personal questions.

"We have no precise numbers, but we have enough anecdotal information to say we serve a lot of working poor," he says. "You have to pay rent, water and electricity, but you can always eat less and that is what people do."

More soup, please

Capuchin's Soup Kitchen is not the only one to experience an influx of working poor people. Emergency food providers in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties say this population is increasingly turning to them for help.

"Everywhere you turn it's the working poor," says Susanne Chandler, the director of the Baldwin Soup Kitchen in Pontiac.

When Engler's welfare reform plan went into effect in 1996, she says that the impact was immediately evident.

"Demands for food increased and other types of handouts, like diapers, baby food and clothing," she says.

The soup kitchen served 107,000 meals in 1995; 109,000 in 1996; and 114,000 in 1997.

"We are on track to serve more meals than that this year," she says.

At the Judgment Morning Food Pantry in Taylor, director Donna Bridges watches the number of families served rise from week to week. In September, there were 10 to 15 new families a week; in October, 20 new families a week. The pantry, which provides a week's supply of food to 2,200 families each month, opened only two years ago, and already is relocating to a larger facility to meet the demand. Bridges does not know if the increased need is due to welfare reform because the pantry opened the same year it went into effect, but says that the majority served are working families.

"They are the working people who have enough money to pay rent and to get to and from work, but not enough money for food," she says. "That is what we are noticing to be the problem."

The Macomb County Food Program, which provides food to 31 pantries, served 12,164 people in fiscal year 1996, 14,692 in fiscal 1997, and 23,381 in 1998, says Sue Figurski, the food coordinator. And many of those served have jobs, she says. Though part of the dramatic 1997-1998 is due to better record keeping, she says, the number of working poor coming for food is skyrocketing.

"They are working, but they still need help."

Making ends meet

Harris left welfare for work in 1990 -- six years before welfare reform went into effect.

"I decided on my own, I want more," she says proudly.

Whether Harris, who began eating at soup kitchens five year ago, is getting more is questionable. Each day is a struggle and her plight may be an indicator of what is in store for those who are leaving welfare for work with a high school education and no job skills.

Harris, who has worked at a series of low-paying jobs, assembles car alarms at a manufacturing company. She recently passed the three-month probation period and now receives health benefits. Before she landed this job, she worked for a year as an aide at a nursing home and before that did general labor and assembly at a factory -- all for a little more than minimum wage, which currently is $5.15 an hour.

Harris ticks off a list of bills that eat up her monthly earnings.

"Lots of car repairs. Just had one, the battery, and then the brakes. Then there's rent, then utilities," she says, sounding exasperated.

After paying her monthly bills she does not have much money left for food, says Harris. She had her phone shut off last month to save a little money. "I'm trying to have a holiday for the kids," she says.

The youngest two attend a free, private elementary school because it is better than the public one nearby. But it wasn't an easy decision, says Harris. The school does not offer a free-lunch program for low-income families.

"That makes it hard."

Bad times, boom times

Though reports resound about the nation's booming economy, the lives of those most in need are not improving. Last year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that requests for emergency food assistance increased 16 percent from the previous year and that 38 percent of the adults seeking help are employed.

The Second Harvest report that pegged the number of people it fed last year at 26 million also showed that the largest number of people going hungry in the country are single mothers and children. Of the 21.5 million cases classed as "emergency food clients," 62 percent are women and 38 percent are children under 18.

"It's criminal," says Second Harvest spokesperson Stacey Reinking. "We are the richest country in the world and one in 10 people are going hungry."

As a result of mounting pressure from hunger advocacy groups, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture conducted its first hunger study last year. It found that 34.6 million people in the United States are suffering from "food insecurity" -- as are 992,000 are people in Michigan, nearly 10 percent of the state.

"Food insecurity means that they cut down on food and eat the wrong kinds of food because they do not have enough money," explains Dr. J. Larry Brown, director of the Center for Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy at Tufts University, which was contracted to do the study. A 1992 report by the center found that 30 million people had inadequate food. In 1985, the Physician Task Force on Hunger in America put the number receiving inadequate food at 20 million.

"This is disturbing because there is high economic growth in the country and this shows that it is not enjoyed by everyone in the country," he says. "We have this paradox of food insecurity and economic boom."

The politics of hunger

Brown says hunger is growing in the United States for one reason: public policy. Hunger was nearly eliminated 30 years ago with the expansion of food stamps, school lunch and breakfast programs, and food banks for pregnant women, new mothers and the elderly. But in 1981, the Reagan administration began cutting these programs. By 1982, signs of hunger were already widespread and three years later national reports showed that millions of Americans experienced hunger, says Brown.

Clinton exacerbated the situation when he recently cut federal assistance programs by $54 billion dollars &endash; $24 billion in food stamps alone. This, coupled with the nation's low minimum wage and rising cost of living, keeps 38 million Americans impoverished and unable to afford food, says Brown. If these social programs were restored, he says, "we could eradicate hunger in a matter of months."

Anuradha Mittal, policy director for Food First-Institute for Food and Development Policy in California, agrees.

"Hunger is not a natural disaster," she says. "It is a matter of social and political factors that deprive people of their basic right to food."

She points to the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome where countries around the globe gathered to address hunger by adopting a doctrine that guarantees everyone the right to food. The United States was the only country that refused to support it because the new welfare policies would be in violation of the new guarantees.

"It is an important indication that we do not have the political will or social policies that cater to the interests of the people," says Mittal. "It is not on the agenda any more."

Looking around the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, where hundreds of families eat together, Mittal's assessment seems true. Next to Harris and her three girls sits a family of four. Before eating, their heads bow and they give thanks to God for their food.

Harris says she gives thanks by donating a portion of her income tax return to the soup kitchen, the Salvation Army and her church.

"I have faith in the Lord," she says. "He won't let us go hungry. I believe in that."