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Philadelphia poverty, hunger on the rise

Published Oct 22, 2010 7:55 PM

According to U.S. Census data released in September, more than 29 percent of residents in Philadelphia’s 1st Congressional District — just a few miles from the historic Liberty Bell — live in poverty. Overall census data found Philadelphia to be the poorest among the country’s 10 largest cities, and the 1st District one of the hungriest, second only to the Bronx, N.Y.

The 1st District includes parts of North, West and South Philadelphia as well as Chester, Pa. In one section of north Philadelphia near Fifth Street and Lehigh Avenue, 63 percent of residents live in poverty — many going days without eating. Ironically the 1st District also includes some of Philadelphia’s most opulent neighborhoods, including Center City, Northern Liberties and Society Hill.

Children are the hardest hit by this economic deprivation. In 2009 child poverty in the 1st District stood at 40 percent, the eighth worst congressional district in the country.

Across the U.S. one in five children live in poverty. In Philadelphia this figure is one in three.

What do these statistics mean in terms of the reality of everyday life for residents of these neighborhoods? On Oct. 10 the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a major article, “A Portrait of Hunger” by Alfred Lubrano, who interviewed several families in the 1st District about their struggles to feed their families.

For many it means not having enough money to buy food or having to choose between buying food or paying rent. For some it means limiting food intake to one meal a day or even going days without eating. Children often go to school hungry, impacting their ability to learn. Families struggle to subsist on income subsidies that may be less than 50 percent of poverty level.

Melissa Scott, a mother of five children ages two to 10, told the Inquirer, “I go days eating nothing. My husband eats once a day.” Sherita Parks spoke of the impact of chronic hunger on her two-year-old daughter, who suffers from a condition known as failure to thrive. “She doesn’t get enough food and it affects her brain. ... She can’t even tell me when she’s hungry.” Dinner for Parks’ children consisted of a cut-up hot dog and a few Cheerios. (Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 10)

With 300,000 jobs lost between 1950 and 1980, many families in the area have suffered from generation after generation of poverty even before the current economic crisis. Because proper nutrition is vital to brain growth, many of the children in this area have experienced severe developmental delays from one generation to the next.

Food stamps program shrinks

With more restricted eligibility requirements for federal food stamp programs since 2006, only one in 10 of nearly 43 million people in the U.S. living below the poverty level of $22,050 for a family of four received welfare cash benefits in 2009.

The limited jobs bill passed by Congress in August, allegedly aimed at saving 318,000 state and local education and health care jobs, cut $11.9 billion from the food stamps program. On Aug. 5, the Senate passed the so-called “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act,” which cut another $2.2 billion from food stamps. Yet since late 2007 there has been a 50 percent increase in the number of people receiving food stamps in the U.S. Eighty percent of the funds go to families with children.

For decades the federal government has kept food prices artificially high through U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that pay farmers not to grow food, or more recently to divert land previously used for growing food crops to production of crops for export or for biofuels. Such subsidies often benefit the wealthiest agricultural companies to the detriment of small family farms or imports from other countries.

The U. S. pays around $20 billion per year to farmers in direct subsidies that give agribusiness farmers extra money for their crops and guarantee a minimum return. U.S. farm subsidies cost poor countries an estimated $50 billion a year in lost agricultural exports while raising global food prices, further harming the poor and increasing malnutrition.

Eric deCarbonnel, editor of MarketSkeptics, points to a steady decline in global food production since 2005. He predicts a further drop of between 20 to 40 percent due to severe drought, a decline in available credit making it harder for farmers to buy seed and fertilizer, and low prices that are discouraging farmers from planting new crops.

DeCarbonnel predicts that “food prices will soar, and, in poor countries with food deficits, millions will starve.” (Global Research, Feb. 10, 2009)

The global food crisis brings into sharp focus the deep contradictions of capitalism with its productive apparatus capable of growing enough food for all the world’s people, but hampered by a profit-driven, market economy that prices life’s basic necessities beyond reach for millions.