A 21st Century Journalism Project

Child Hunger Uncovered

In Defining The Problem on March 1, 2012 at 9:48 am


Poverty is a struggle that takes many forms and does not exclude race, gender or ethnicity.  However, the idea that poverty is reserved specifically for those without an income is false.

Dutch artist Willem de Kooning once said, “The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time.”

Wondering constantly where will my next meal come from? Will I be able to pay my bills? What does it mean, then, to have a job but still struggle? To have a source of income but still fight to make ends meet? These are issues of the working poor, an ever growing group of people who seem to fly under the radar because it is not readily understood that jobs do not always equal stability, let alone luxury.

The current needs of American citizens are at the forefront of American politics, the Occupy Movements, and media reports on the economy.

On the surface, it is difficult to understand why the working poor struggle.  They have jobs.  It seems relatively safe to say that people with jobs should not fall into a category of poverty. But it happens. According to a recent American University article, there were 10.4 million working poor people in the United States in 2009. The working poor are classified as people who spend at least 27 weeks a year in the workforce but take home incomes that fall below the poverty level.

Working Poor Poverty Rate

Despite working full time jobs, many Americans are still living below the poverty line. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Between 1987 and 2009 the U.S. workforce grew by nearly 30 percent. Despite this statistic, the number of people working and living in poverty grew by over 65 percent. 3.8 percent of American workers (4.2 million people) work full time but are still living below the poverty line.

According to the Department of Labor, the working poor usually have jobs in retail and service sectors. These jobs offer little or no benefits and require varied hours. As noted in an 2006 Annie E. Casey Foundation study, “A job alone does not always ensure sufficient income to provide for a family’s basic needs.”

Working poor individuals and families struggle on many levels, including feeding themselves and caring for dependents. Hunger is real not just to those who have no source of income and depend entirely on government assistance, but also to those who work for a living in one or more jobs.

Hunger affects 49 million people in the United States. It is a widespread issue that plays a significant role in the lives of those it affected by it. More than 59 percent of households struggling to find food used one of the three national food assistance programs in 2010 (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, The National School Lunch Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). These programs help reduce hunger and prevent starvation, but they do not eradicate the problem.

Children are one of the groups most affected by working class poverty. Child hunger has many side effects, including poor health. According to a 2011 Feeding America study, “Inadequate nutrition can permanently alter a child’s brain architecture and stunt their intellectual capacity, affecting the child’s learning, social interaction, and productivity.” The study also found that children who are hungry fall behind in cognitive learning and suffer long term consequences.

Child hunger is a hyperlocal issue. The children of the working poor in areas such as Northwest Pennsylvania struggle daily to find sources of food.

The Erie School District of Northwest Pennsylvania knows the struggles of working poor families in the area. Currently, 75 percent of families in the District are eligible for free or reduced lunches, according to Matthew Cummings, director of communications for Erie Public Schools.

“Children in families whose income is between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced price lunches,” says Cummings. “Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level, and children in families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and children in families receiving food stamp benefits are eligible for free lunches.”

Despite these school lunch programs nationwide, there are relatively few programs to support children when they go home.

Programs such as the Backpack Program and Kids Cafe Program are available to children in many places nationwide, however. These programs are not able to eradicate hunger but they guarantee a few balanced meals for the children who participate.

The BackPack Program in Northwest PA in conjunction with the Second Harvest Food Bank of NWPA currently reaches 473 second graders in all 15 Erie city elementary schools. The backpacks are distributed on weekends and holidays breaks and are filled with enough food to help feed siblings of the second graders. Reactions to the program in schools on the local level is positive, “Teachers love this program and they make sure that families who really could use this help are involved,” says Cindy Plymyer of the Second Harvest Food Bank of NWPA. The program is expected to expand to other grades in the future.

Kids Cafe program

Kids Cafes offer children nutritious meals and in most cases, community programs. Source: Orange County Second Harvest Food Bank

In addition to the Backpack Program, Kids Cafes are currently available at five locations throughout the city of Erie to provide meals to children who may not receive one at home. “A lot of the families of our JFK’s after-school children are among the working poor, working 2-3 jobs to make ends meet because their jobs don’t pay a living wage. Some of our families must make choices between food and medicine as they can’t have both,” said Karen Grettler of the John F. Kennedy Center in Erie. The JFK Center is a nonprofit agency that provides programs for the underprivileged, including seniors and children.

While these are some local solutions, child hunger is a national problem. Just as poverty is not a matter that can solved with a single solution, neither can the issues of the working poor, including child hunger.  Child hunger in reference to the working poor is a matter that requires time, commitment and action as proven by the numerous efforts set forth by the government, organizations and individuals who work to improve current conditions.


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