Rising Employment & Poverty? Our Strange Recovery

We have a 4.9% unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

We’ve come a long way from the 10% unemployment rate of October 2009.

So we would expect to see some quality of life indexes improving, like poverty or food security rates.

But this is a strange recovery. We have halved the unemployment figure from 2009, but 5 million more people are in poverty today than before the economic recession, according to Brookings. Approximately 14 million people lived in extremely poor neighborhoods or 2x as many as in 2000.

Doubling the poverty rate is not exactly progress.

But it gets worse when we look at the number of Americans who go hungry. In 2006, we were making real headway on this indicator; 10.6% households were “food insecure” (defined as not everyone in the household having access to enough food, all the time, for an active and healthy lifestyle).

Today, the percentage of households described as food insecure is 14% (17.4 million households or 48 million people). And what is most disturbing is that many of the people in these households have jobs. But because their wages have been flat amid rising costs of living, food has become something they go without sometimes.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is supposed to help. But 3-month waiting periods, mandatory drug testing, and job requirements disqualify many. Instead of making it easy to get food stamps, states have actually made it harder than ever to get them. Federal funding cuts have left them scrambling.

Emergency service food providers like soup kitchens and food pantries are left holding the bag.

In a recent Atlantic article, Margarette Purvis, the president and CEO of the Food Bank for New York City, the largest food bank in the United States, said she has seen an uptick in demand. A “perpetual emergency” is how she describes the situation, with households who have not needed help in the past, needing it now:

“We’re seeing more seniors, we’re seeing more families with small children, and we’re seeing more of the working poor,” said Purvis.

In New York, the reality of the crisis has not fallen on deaf ears. Recently, Governor Cuomo raised the income threshold for SNAP eligibility to 150% of the poverty line (from 130% of the poverty line). This enabled 750,000 new households to be eligible. It is hoped other states will follow New York’s lead.

Recovering from something means you are able to move on with your life after a traumatic incident. If you are hungry and living in poverty, like so many are doing, you are not recovering.