CHICAGO — Human suffering, more than Wall Street indicators, tells us the world’s richest nation is plunging into its most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, while the Iraq war continues to drain the nation’s Treasury. As Congress heard the Bush administration’s top general and ambassador in Iraq argue for continuing to pour billions into an open-ended occupation there, news reports showed an all-time record of 28 million Americans now survive only because of food stamps.
The Congressional Budget Office predicts that as many as 30 million Americans will, by October, be using food stamps to buy their most essential foods. That will be the highest number in U.S. history relying on what has traditionally been considered the symbol of poverty.
“When people have trouble getting food on the table you know there’s a problem,” said Carol Waters, a Chicago social worker at a downtown homeless shelter. “People at the shelter here have needed food stamp assistance for a while,” she said. “But now people around their kitchen tables all over this land are needing those same food stamps. Without that aid there would be nothing on those tables to eat. The children would go hungry.”
The increased reliance on food stamps, up from an already record-breaking 26.5 million last year, results from the squeeze on people by an economy not working for them. Close to 200,000 were tossed onto the jobless pile in the first quarter of this year alone.
Estimates are that, as homelessness surges, homeowners still in their houses are losing $70,000 per year due to the falling value of their homes. Inability to make mortgage and rent payments, on top of the job loss, is translating now into the difficulty people are having feeding themselves and their children.
The food crisis is nationwide, but it hits particularly hard across the Midwest “rust belt.” Recent layoffs in the auto industry in Michigan, for example, helped drive up the percentage of people in that state on food stamps. Before the layoffs, 1 in 9 Michigan residents were on food stamps. Now the number is 1 in 8. A year ago, Maureen Sorbert, a spokesperson for the state’s food stamp program, was telling the press that she expected the number of recipients to level off soon, but early this month she said the increase has been even more dramatic in recent months.
The numbers of people relying on food stamps have grown over the last year by 10 percent or more in at least 40 states. In some states, Rhode Island for example, the numbers have increased by almost 20 percent.
Charles White, 66, would die without his food stamps. He uses his food stamp card at Jewel Osco on Wabash Ave., south of Chicago’s downtown Loop. He said that to pay a recent electric bill in the apartment he shares with his wife, who needs a walker to get around, he found another shopper who traded cash for some of White’s food stamp dollars. White then walked to a nearby currency exchange to pay his bill. After the last such transaction, he had only $2.25 left on his food card, which had to last him and his wife for an entire week. “We shared one orange, a can of soup and four slices of bread until the government refilled the card,” he said.
Rick Lilley, the manager at Halsted Foods in this city’s Bridgeport neighborhood, said the number of his customers on food stamps has been growing steadily, but noted that the rate of growth leveled off a bit recently because of the effects of the housing crisis. “Seniors, retired people, poor people and even people with jobs are being pushed out of this neighborhood,” he said, “as the real estate people bring wealthier people into the neighborhood.”
Lilley said that food stamps are buying people “less and less these days” because of skyrocketing food prices. “The biggest hikes are in the cost of what people need most,” he said. “Pasta, rice and flour are up 100 percent over last year. Eggs are up 40 percent. A gallon of milk went up eight times over the last six months, for a total of 20 cents, and chicken will be next.” He blamed the rising cost of fuel that makes truck transport more expensive, the diversion of corn and other grains to biofuel production, and the war in Iraq.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the food stamp program, admits to a 6 percent rise in the cost of feeding a low-income family of four over the last year. There has been no increase in food stamp allotments during that period.
In the same period, the federal government spent over 40 percent of every income tax dollar for military spending, but less than 9 percent for anti-poverty programs, the National Priorities Project reported last week.