Thursday, September 5, 2013

Hunger in (rural) America: Both black and white, young and old

Thank you Sheryl Gay Stolberg for your story about food insecurity in today's New York Times, dateline Dyersburg, Tennessee, population 17,145.  With "As Debate Reopens, Food Stamp Recipients Continue to Squeeze," Stolberg does what we see too infrequently in the media: illustration(s) of a social problem--food insecurity--by reference to both black and white populations, both young families and the elderly, both men and women.   Here's an excerpt:
As a self-described “true Southern man” — and reluctant recipient of food stamps — Dustin Rigsby, a struggling mechanic, hunts deer, doves and squirrels to help feed his family. He shops for grocery bargains, cooks budget-stretching stews and limits himself to one meal a day. 
Tarnisha Adams, who left her job skinning hogs at a slaughterhouse when she became ill with cancer, gets $352 a month in food stamps for herself and three college-age sons. She buys discount meat and canned vegetables, cheaper than fresh. Like Mr. Rigsby, she eats once a day — “if I eat,” she said.  
Elsewhere, Stolberg quotes Rigsby, age 20 with a wife and one-year-old son, as saying we “'look like we are fine,' but live on the edge of poverty, skipping meals and rationing food." The Rigsbys say they prioritize meals for their child, but that they often run out of milk by the end of the month.  Rigsby is out of work because of a knee injury, but he recently sold his truck.  His wife works part time at J.C. Penney.  Their SNAP benefit is $350 a month, but will fall by $29 in November, when cuts go into effect.

Mr. Rigsby, "who dreams of becoming a game warden," supports drug-testing for food stamp recipients.  He says he is "irritated" by people "who mooch off the system."  It's a stance that reminds me of Jennifer Sherman's Those Who Work, Those Who Don't:  Poverty, Morality and Family in Rural America (2009).

Another woman featured is 61-year-old, Kathy Baucom, a former welder now disabled with lupus.  She relies in large part on the deer she hunts to feed herself--as well as on the local food bank.  Her SNAP benefit is just $117/month.

Dyersburg is the county seat of nonmetropolitan Dyer County, population 38,335, with a poverty rate of 19.2%.  It is in the Mississippi Delta region, associated with high, intergenerational poverty.  Stolberg apparently selected Dyersburg because of the area's U.S. Congressman.  Stephen Fincher, elected in a Tea Party wave in 2010, is also a soybean and corn farmer who received some $3.5 million in subsidies between 1999 and 2012.  He recently voted for a farm bill that did not include food stamps, now officially known as SNAP:  Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.

Stolburg highlights not only Fincher's hypocrisy, but also his Biblical justifications for his lack of charity toward the poor.  After his vote on the farm bill in May, Fincher said,
The role of citizens, of Christianity, of humanity, is to take care of each other, not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country. 
At another point he quoted the verse, "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat."  I guess he hasn't noticed the extent of the problem among the disabled and working poor. (That phrase always reminds me of Joe Bageant's quip:  "poor is poor whether you have to work for it or not.")  

Kudos to Stolberg for seeing rural folks in this story, where she writes:  
Experts say the problem is particularly acute in rural regions like Dyersburg, a city of 17,000 on the banks of the Forked Deer River in West Tennessee. More than half the counties with the highest concentration of food insecurity are rural, according to an analysis by Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks. In Dyer County, it found, 19.4 percent of residents were “food insecure” in 2011, compared with 16.4 percent nationwide.
Elsewhere Stolberg specifically acknowledges the invisibility of hunger--especially in rural areas.   

As I pick labels for this post, "children," "teens," "elderly," "family," "race/ethnicity," I am reminded that all of these groups are struggling with hunger--and poverty.

This story's incidental discussion of hunting as a way to provide for one's family--and oneself--reminds me of this earlier post.

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