The Theory of Relativity

Image and video hosting by TinyPicFile under sad but true: In New York City, we walk by/step over hungry people every day, desensitized to the sights of poverty. But nationwide, “news” outlets are newly fascinated with stories of the fallen middle class, gathering color quotes for their front-page below the fold articles that trumpet the indignities of being poor; showing b-roll of weather-worn Midwesterners in line outside food banks, shoving their hands in their front pockets and shaking their heads, lamenting that they don’t know how they got there.
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Not to scare you
, but what these journalists conveniently forget to mention is that they’ve always been there, standing in the shadows of state buildings, looking to supplement low hourly wages to feed their families (who hasn’t used stamps at some point in their lives to buy staples, whether they belonged to you or someone else?). Prompting me to ask: What is poor, really? And why do we care now?

Close to home:
In Detroit, times are undeniably rough. While US unemployment currently sits at 9.4%, it’s 17.1% in the greater metropolitan area—the highest in the nation among cities with populations of 1 million+. With jobs going the way of Betamax and the working class losing their already tenuous grip on “prosperity,” perhaps the food situation is best illustrates what’s happening on the ground: Quality food is so unaffordable in the city that armed paramilitary orgs have been spotted watching over deliveries to fend off folks who might steal to eat. (Call me a socialist idealist, but why did we let food become a commodity that needs to be defended with violence?) And the folks who can afford to buy groceries are often forced to pay shockingly high prices for shitty food at corner stores (“Should I get Cheetos, or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?”), as there hasn’t been a single grocery store chain in Detroit proper since 2007, when A&P pulled out. And while this could be a great opportunity to support independent grocers, with salaries shrinking and no economy of scale in place to bring down prices, there is no money left to support them.

Looking beyond the D, the USDA reports that 33.2 million people are now receiving food stamps nationwide—that’s 1 in every 9 people. How poor do you have to be to get stamps? Starting in October a single woman living alone must gross less than $1175 a month, according to federal guidelines. That is $14,100 annually, that is some bullshit, and that is painful to consider.

Around the world:
Meanwhile, the UN reports that the number of “chronically hungry” people in the world now tops 1 billion for the first time in history; that’s an astonishing 1 in 6 people. This number has risen 150 million in the past two years, and is being linked not to poor harvests, but to the current recession and pervasive high food costs.

But while the stimulus package increased food stamp benefits by 13.6%, increasing the average single woman’s benefit to $200 a month, things are going the opposite way for the UN’s World Food Programme. Food aid rations are being cut as recession strapped countries decrease their contributions to the fund; Rwanda (where the majority of the population lives below the international poverty line, spending less than $1/day) has already seen daily rations cut to just 320 grams of grains per person. And the US will likely be among those scaling back on their giving, according to Burnham Philbrook, deputy undersecretary US Department of Agriculture, who said that the government could “not guarantee the funding level of 2008.”

The easy answer to why we care about the poor now is that the numbers are steadily rising, making them hard to avoid. The more complicated answer is probably closer to the truth—we’re scared. Never has it been clearer that most of us are just a paycheck or two away from filing for assistance or losing our homes. As the face of poverty morphs from the dude on the corner asking for a quarter to your neighbor unpacking a box of donated food, it shifts from being something to ignore to a being a mirror—and as a nation of narcissists, we all know it’s hard to turn away from a mirror…

Are You looking?

—Kenrya

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