IT WASN’T THE BEST THANKSGIVING I remember, but it sticks in my mind as one of several when the region got socked by a snowstorm on the holiday. We had to turn back from our trip to visit friends for dinner. The snow was too deep and slippery. The turkey lovers sulked, failing to grasp the charm of a culinary adventure that featured canned spaghetti and side dishes made for the feast that wasn’t. Candles just made it worse. Forget romance. The power outage meant no TV.
I like knowing – or not worrying about – where my next meal will come from. It’s hard to imagine living without that security. I think about that when I see how much food it takes for local food pantries to find enough provisions to meet the demand just for Thanksgiving, let alone all the other days that people need help finding enough food to eat. Collecting food for a pantry you see all sorts of folks donating, and you have to resist marveling that they aren’t standing in line waiting to pick up some of the food rather than quietly offering the pantry whole shopping carts full of non-perishable items.
Who, exactly, gets helped by all this food? Maybe the occasional freeloader slips into line, but mostly it’s people who would otherwise go without. Yet the Census Bureau has acknowledged it doesn’t have a particularly good way of defining who’s poor in this country. Decades ago the federal government established a standard based exclusively on income. Problem is, that approach ignores government support programs like food stamps.
So for the 2010 Census some of the experts who study these matters worked up a companion statistic for poverty called the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes into consideration government aid. On the other side of the ledger, it considers that people who are struggling economically pay taxes, a fact that the old poverty rate calculation overlooks.
Census data on the web from 2010 make it difficult for the average humanoid to tease out whether the national numbers match what we see around us. But it seems from the estimates for 2008 and 2009 that Columbia County has a poverty rate lower that the state and the nation overall, down around 8.5%. (Why don’t the years for poverty measurement match the census? Ask the geniuses in Washington.)
So we have less poverty here than in big cities. It’s been that way for years. But the figures still suggest that over 5,000 of our neighbors in this county live at or below the poverty level by the old measure. And children are the largest percentage of them.
The new Supplemental Poverty Measure, a more complete and nuanced evaluation of who’s really poor, appears to slightly reduce the number of people who qualify as poor. But the data also show that even when factoring in government benefits, there has been a big growth in the number of people who fit the definition of “near poor.” They live a paycheck away from poverty, sometimes closer than that. Technically, the near poor are those who live on less than 150% of the poverty line income. If that sounds abstract, look at it this way. The federal Department of Health and Human Services says you’re poor if you live alone and earn $10,830 or less a year. For a family of four, poor is defined as an income of $22,050.
If thousands of people in this county are living on their share of those small amounts, it doesn’t matter how you recalculate it, they need whatever help they can get. Charitable giving by individuals and businesses helps a lot, but it’s not enough and never will be.
This week, on the eve of Thanksgiving, the “super committee” appointed by Congress to reduce the deficit failed to reach an agreement, paving the way for huge, across-the-board cuts to government spending, including reduction or elimination of programs that help feed people of all ages right here. That should not be allowed to happen.
I’m thankful that I live where people help their neighbors. I’m thankful for the means to meet my daily needs. I’m thankful for political leaders in the past who understood that our strength as a nation depends on the willingness of government to step in when individual efforts alone are insufficient to promote the common good. I’m hopeful that the same spirit of common duty still prevails among the leaders we have today.
I wish all our readers a happy Thanksgiving.