It's a sign of the bad economic times we're living in that, even as the national unemployment rate has hit a nine-year high, economists are optimistic because it didn't go higher.
The US Labor Department announced in June that unemployment hit 6.1% and that the economy had lost 2.5 million jobs since February of 2001. It is the longest sustained period without job growth since the Great Depression, according to the New York Times.
In addition, the Times reported, the number of people no longer looking for work and no longer included in the jobless statistics also rose.
And yet, economists are saying the statistics are not as bad as expected -- leading to a rally on Wall Street and a sense among some economists that things could be turning the corner.
That is small consolation for the many families across the country facing hard times.
Local food pantries around the countries are reporting an increase in need in their areas. In South Brunswick, N.J., where I live, for instance, the township food pantry is considering adding an extra day to accommodate the growing number of individuals and families seeking help. Currently, the pantry serves clients on Tuesday afternoons and Thursday mornings.
Across the country, food banks and food networks are reporting the same kinds of increases. According to America's Second Harvest, a network of organizations working ameliorate poverty, the number seeking emergency food aid is on the rise. Second Harvest's report, "Hunger in America 2001" found that 23.3 million people sought and received emergency hunger relief just from the organization's network of charities in 2001. It also said that between 1997 and 2001, demand for emergency food assistance through the network rose 9%. Second Harvest also reports that a survey of the organization's affiliates taken in late 2001 and early 2002 found that 86% had seen an increase in requests for food assistance during the past year.
Second Harvest also reports that New York City's soup kitchens and food pantries fed 45% more people in 2002 than in 2000.
And food banks in Boston and Chicago are also facing greater demand, Second Harvest says. The Greater Chicago Food Depository, which serves 600 agencies, distributed 36 million pounds of food in 2002 and could distribute 42 million this year, which translates to about 91,000 families a week. The Greater Boston Food Bank, which in recent years would distribute up to 350,000 pounds of food a week, has since October been giving away between 500,000 to 600,000 pounds of food weekly.
The work of local food pantries -- and larger food bank networks like the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the Greater Boston Food Bank and their counterparts in other states and national groups like Second Harvest -- are crucial to ensuring that 33.6 million who are hungry or at risk of hunger in the United States have access to food.
But while the work they do is important, it can never be enough.
The fact is poverty and hunger cannot be addressed adequately unless the federal and state governments step up to the plate and do more than they have been doing in recent years. According to federal estimates, about 11.7% of all Americans lived in poverty in 2000 -- or about 32.9 million people.
And the numbers are getting worse, says Second Harvest. The 33.6 million who were "food insecure" in 2001 represented an increase of about 400,000 people, while the number of people who suffer from hunger was up a half million in 2001 to 9 million.
And yet, the federal government has spent the last seven years -- under both President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush -- slashing welfare benefits under the rubric of reform. State governments have followed suit, with many creating an array of labyrinthine processes designed to discourage participation of the poor in the programs they most need.
But rather than moving to fix the problem, the president has signed into law a tax cut that will do nothing for the working poor while shoveling loads of cash into the pockets of those at the upper end of the income spectrum.
And now the House of Representatives is considering even more draconian welfare legislation and curbs on the food stamp program that can only make things worse.
It's important that these trends be reversed. Almost anyone of us could find ourselves out of work and in need of assistance. So we need to make sure that assistance is there.
To help, contact:
America's Second Harvest, 35 E. Wacker Dr., #2000, Chicago, IL. 60601; phone (800) 771-2303 or (312) 263-2303; www.secondharvest.org.
Center on Hunger and Poverty, Brandeis University, Mailstop 077, Waltham, Mass. 02454; phone (781) 736-8885; email, firstname.lastname@example.org; www.centeronhunger.org
Food Research and Action Center, 1875 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 540, Washington, D.C. 20009; phone (202) 986-2200; email, email@example.com; www.frac.org.
The National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, 233 North Pleasant St., Suite 32, Amherst, Mass. 01002; phone, (413) 253-6417 or (800) NO-HUNGR; email, firstname.lastname@example.org; www.pirg.org/nscahh/
Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of two central New Jersey newspapers. Email email@example.com.