My Word: Is it time to redefine poverty?

The U.S. Census Bureau released its latest figures on poverty this past week…no surprise, it has increased. It is at an 11 year high of 13.2%, or 39.8 million people. The poverty rate for children is at 19%. In Central Florida this equates into just over 100,000 kids. To get a better picture of the magnitude, you could fill up the Amway Arena five times over with children. Local schools are reporting large increases this year in the number of children that are attending and are homeless.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines poverty as: “The state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions.” This definition sure is fairly subjective and relatively speaking, can put a lot of people into the same boat.

The U.S. government’s definition of poverty is stated in different terms and is based on a 50 year old formula of three times the typical food bill and doesn’t take into account the rising costs of medical care, transportation, child care and housing expenses. Has life changed a bit since the television show “Leave It To Beaver” ? The U.S. poverty rate for a family of four, equates into approximately $21,000 of annual income. Do the math; you cannot make ends meet, even when you have income as an under-employed person — if you’re fortunate to have a job. And based on how the unemployment rate is calculated, we are given a skewed picture, it’s actually worse. Some government calculations report it close to 17%.

The typical American household made less money last year than it made a decade ago, according to new figures from the Census Bureau. Economic growth in the current decade has been slower than in any decade since before World War II. Income inequality also expanded. There are now more than 2.1 million people in the State of Florida receiving Food Stamp benefits as opposed to just over a little over 1 million two years ago.

After Hurricane Katrina, the former head of FEMA commented… “We’re seeing people we didn’t know existed” in reference to the overwhelming poverty in the Gulf Coast. The comment was somewhat prophetic because today, in this slow moving disaster of economic meltdown, many people who didn’t imagine themselves out of work and money are seeking help for basic human needs. It took a while for them to surface because of pride, embarrassment, and even shame. People can only hold out for so long, eventually they need to eat.  These are people at the poverty level, up to 150% of that level, including blue collar and some college-educated white collar workers.

The top three requests for emergency help through the 2-1-1 Call Line are utilities assistance, rent, and food. At Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, our partner feeding programs are experiencing increases for food ranging from a “low” of 30% upwards to 400%. We’re distributing at or near disaster relief levels. The major increase in demand is driven by first time users of the food assistance system. Existing recipients are benefiting from our services more frequently.

The Central Florida community has come together in the past during disasters, we can do it again. While poverty may or may not need to be redefined, the current situation certainly shows a whole new added population needing help.

Martin Luther King said…”The time is always right to do what is right.” Please consider helping any number of local non profit organizations providing basic human needs during this slow moving economic disaster. To paraphrase Merriam-Webster’s definition of poverty….it’s socially unacceptable to have so many people in need of basic human services; especially the kids.

Dave Krepcho
Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida

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