“Mommy, I want some peaches,” cried the little girl. Then with the same urgency, her brother said, “Mama, if she gets peaches I get grapes.” The clearly frustrated mother calmly told them that they could not have fruit today. Grapes and peaches, she said, would come when her check arrived.
That a mother would deny her children a few dollars worth of fruit seems incomprehensible at first. But this woman, like many in my city of Waco, was barely scraping by. According to recent census data the number of poor Americans today is higher than it has been since government started tracking poverty 51 years ago.
The sad image of the children stayed with me long after I left the store so I decided to take a look at poverty in McLennan County. One of the indicators for poverty is the unemployment rate, so I contacted David Davis, Director at Heart of Texas Workforce. I asked him about unemployment in McLennan County. He informed me that the unemployment rate was 7.4 percent in McLennan County and 8.3 percent in the state.
But that rate doesn’t tell the whole story, only who is filing for benefits.
To find those who no longer receive help, Davis informed me that Texas Workforce periodically sends out surveys. While they get some response, he said, it is difficult to track those who are no longer receiving unemployment benefits if they are no longer in the system.
I put my feelers out and was able to make contact with a couple of people who were unemployed and looking for work. Ms. Smith, as I will call her, has been unemployed since October 2009 and her unemployment benefits ended in July. At the time, she and her sister lived together in a small apartment on her unemployment benefits and her sister’s tuition grant. In addition, Ms. Smith received a monthly allotment of $133.00 in food stamps for her sister and herself.
After her unemployment ended, Ms. Smith was given a monthly increase in food stamps to $200.00. Both she and her sister recently moved back home with their single mother and their employment situation remains unchanged. Ms. Smith says that she no longer goes to Texas Workforce for assistance finding a job, but that both she and her sister continue to look. Will they sink deeper into poverty or will they have help as they battle to survive?
Another young lady with whom I spoke is presently receiving unemployment benefits and has three children whom she has to care for. She has received $404.00 in unemployment benefits every two months since December 2009 and approximately $16.00 a month in food stamps as an individual. She also receives sporadic help with her rent and food from relatives. This young lady, whom I will call Ms. Jones, is about 26 years old and says she took in her relatives’ children because there was no one else who was willing. With her unemployment benefits coming to an end sometime in October, she should receive additional benefits in food stamps but it won’t be more than $200.00 a month because as a non-custodial guardian, she cannot get benefits for the children.
Ms. Jones is struggling with keeping her vehicle legal and managing her life as a new parent with two school age children and a baby. Her struggle to feed and clothe the children is an ongoing one. “I’m so stressed because I only had $100.00 left in my unemployment account when I checked today,” Ms. Jones said. “What I really want to do is get a job so that I can take care of myself and the children.”.
After a little research, it became evident that the rising number of people seeking food stamps is an important indicator of poverty in McLennan County and elsewhere in the United States. Census data shows that there were 81,349 households in McLennan County in 2009 with 21.1 percent of them below the poverty level. Of that number, 9, 831 households received food stamps (that’s 62.5 percent of those living below poverty level).
I spoke with several agencies regarding poverty in the area and each time I was told that they are seeing increases in the number of people seeking assistance. Some of the clients are newly unemployed and new to the system. Lydia Chavez, director of emergency assistance at Caritas, said that from 2007 to 2010 they have seen a 25 percent increase in the number of clients served. She said that they see a lot of single mothers and homeless veterans, and that Caritas might serve as many as 3,000 clients in a month.
Eva Cruz, executive director of McLennan County Health Services, also reports an increase in the number of clients served. According to their records, the client population has grown 100 percent since last year. Ms. Cruz said the county has streamlined its policies to provide easier access to services and that all clients are now taken on a walk-in basis. This is one battle being fought on a local front that seems to show a little promise but more funding is desperately needed.
With the unemployment rate so high across the country and with the slowdown in production, there is of course a slowdown in consumer spending. As businesses continue to close their doors or file for bankruptcy, more and more residents of McLennan County will get caught up in the struggle.
We hear a lot about high unemployment, foreclosures and welfare benefits from the mainstream media. But we don’t hear a lot about solutions to this crisis. We hear a lot of blame being dumped on hard-working Americans for the foreclosure problem; for them being too lazy to work or look for a job; for them using food stamps, healthcare benefits and even social security.
I want to hear what our local, state and federal legislators are doing to address this economic crisis other than to blame the victims while they allow Corporate America free rein with the economy? How can they continue to justify outlandish military spending when the real war for so many is to put food on the table? Or how to come up with the monthly mortgage payment when they are trying to subsist on unemployment benefits and food stamps.
The needs of struggling Americans are clearly not a priority for our elected officials. They don’t have to go to the grocery store with their children in tow and deny them fresh fruit or explain why the children can no longer go to the movies. And they certainly don’t have to apologize to their children for not being able to buy them a pair of basketball sneakers for practice or short them on lunch money!
Some of our legislators think that the unemployed and other struggling Americans should just be happy that they are getting by – that they have shelter, food stamps and other welfare benefits to turn to, but all of us want a piece of the American Dream.
Our politicians and others need to declare a war on the debilitating poverty that is gripping our communities.We have too many legislators voting against issues tied directly to the economic well-being of our country and our populace.
Our governor stood against the recent education jobs-funding bill aimed at saving the jobs of educators. Educators in Texas are praising U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Waco) for his support while his District 17 challenger is attacking him. U.S. Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn both voted against the bill according to Grading Texas: Clay Robinson’s report card on education and the Texas political arena.
Both Senators also have an anti-union and an anti-minimum wage voting record while Senator Edwards has a record of voting for union issues and for minimum wage increases. But when it comes to Big Business and especially oil interests, these same Republican senators cast favorable votes and even have personal oil holdings.
We have past the time of putting Main Street on the back burner in favor of Big Business. It is time to implement a strategic ‘War on Poverty’ which will address the economic issues of wage stagnation, the rising cost of goods, loss of jobs and employment opportunities, the foreclosure crisis and all related problems facing our country.
It is time for our legislators to go to their districts and various locales and walk with and talk to their constituents as they try to comprehend the gravity of poverty’s grip on their communities. It is time for them to say no to Wall Street and say yes to their constituents. Now is the time for them to pick up the gauntlet and pay homage to the real meaning of The Constitution of the United States.
Bring back the ‘War on Poverty’ and bring it back with a vengeance!
DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Texas Observer. The author is solely responsible for its content.