WASHINGTON – Many assume that people who go to soup kitchens or other charitable organizations for food don't have jobs.
“That hasn't been true for 10 years,” said Bill Clark,president of Philadelphia food bank Philabundance.
A study released by Feeding America in early February shows the majority of people who seek emergency food assistance are working. They are underemployed or don't have high enough wages to live on. More than a third of client households have at least one employed adult.
“The top 10 percent have a very low unemployment,” said Jim Tillotson,a nutrition science professor at Tufts University. “It's the bottom that gets shut out. They're working less,and they're hurting.”
Donna Camp,director of Wesley Evening Food Pantry in Champaign, Ill.,said most who come to her pantry work and never expected to rely on handouts.
“I'm not an economist,but I know that minimum wage,even with two people making minimum wage in a household,is not enough to support a family,” Camp said.
Many U.S. workers face tremendous economic uncertainty.
Mark Rank,a social welfare professor at Washington University in St. Louis,said nearly all other developed nations do more to help their poor.
“We really do very little in terms of protecting families,” he said. The United States is the “most meager welfare state,” of any Westernized country.
Part of the reason Americans are hesitant to engage in social welfare programs involves a national myth.
“It has to do with our individualistic background,” Rank said. Americans feel they should solve problems for themselves and not have to rely on others,he said.
In fact,the government originally designed food stamps as large coupons to make it easy to identify those who couldn't afford food. Lawmakers “didn't want them to feel comfortable” using the stamps,Rank said.
Martin Meloche, associate professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia,said there's shame attached to receiving food at pantries,many of which are located in church and school basements.
“There's this sense of receiving a handout when you go there,” he said.
Meloche helped set up the Philadelphia Community Food Center,which allows clients to shop for and pick out their food rather than receiving a prepackaged meal,making it seem less like a handout.
The food stamp program,now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,has similarly changed its mentality.
Now,people in the program use plastic cards,rather than paper stamps,so they aren't made to feel self-conscious,Rank said.
“You really don't know that they're using food stamps,” he said. This reflects “moving away from the idea of stigma.”
Racial makeup may have an effect as well.
“Because the U.S. is racially heterogeneous,there's less of a tendency to be as generous as countries like Sweden or Germany,” Rank said.
When people know that their tax money is going to people who look like them,they are more likely to be willing to give,he said.
This phenomenon is observable in European countries. In some places,as more immigrants enter a country,citizens stop wanting to pay for social programs.
“As other races come in,there's a backlash against the welfare state,” Rank said. “Going after and attacking immigrants has been a successful political strategy in countries such as France,the Netherlands,Belgium,Austria and Denmark.”
Some politicians in these countries work together against immigrants.
“In Austria and the Netherlands,anti-immigrant parties have been able to form coalitions,” Rank said. “These coalitions have focused on attempting to roll back the social welfare states in their countries.”
Rank said the insufficiency of government social programs makes it particularly easy for Americans to fall into poverty.
“Half of all American children will find themselves at some point in a household using food stamps,” Rank said.
Paula Greear, director of media relations for Feeding America,said many “wake up every morning and stare hunger in the face.”
“A lot of the people turning to us for help are new people,” she said.
Rank said 58 percent of Americans ages 20 to 70 will find themselves living below the poverty line at some point.
“More and more people are realizing that this could be me,” Rank said. “We ought to think of poverty not as a question of them,but as a question of us.”