Defining America's New Face of Poverty

New Face of Poverty
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Five years after the death of her husband, Rosalinde Block found herself at a food pantry on 86th Street in New York in desperate need of basic supplies to feed herself and her teenage son.

The 58-year-old Sarah Lawrence College graduate who made her life as a musician, illustrator, author and teacher of music and art, who spent a lifetime embodying a philanthropic spirit, has shifted to the other side as a recipient in need.

"It's kind of like J.K. Rowling," she gamely told ABCNews.com, referring to the famous author, who supported herself and her young daughter on welfare while writing the Harry Potter novels that would make her rich and famous.

Block is one of the changing faces of poverty. Typically, food banks and food pantries are non-profit organizations across the country that provide meals to millions of families and individuals in need. The food is oft-times supplied by food banks to food pantries, which then distribute to clients. And, as a result of the economic slowdown that has left more than 14 million people unemployed or underemployed in the United States, these organizations are facing one of their greatest periods of demand.

VIDEO: Government reports one in seven Americans now live below the poverty line.
Land of the Free, Home of the Broke?

Despite reports that the country is coming out of its longest recession since the Great Depression, many people are struggling to afford the necessities.

At Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry in Pittsburgh, demand for supplemental food has increased 32 percent over the first quarter of 2010. The pantry that serves 860 clients has seen a return of old clients, that were presumably once doing better, and working families that have fallen on hard times due to reduced hours and job loss. This, despite that the National Bureau of Economic Research, a respected group of economists, says the U.S. recession that started in December 2007 officially ended in June 2009.

"People are finding it harder to stretch their budgets because of the rising costs of utilities and increased [health insurance] co-pays," says Becky Abrams, the director at Squirrel Hill.

Fish Foods Banks of Pierce County, Washington, saw client traffic to the seven food banks that serve around 30,000 people a month increase by 34 percent last year and another16 percent since the start of 2010. The fastest growing age group at Fish and St. Leo Food Connection tend to be 55 years old or older.

"To me that says that older workers who have lost their jobs are having a harder time trying to find a job," says Beth Elliott, executive director at the nonprofit food organization. "It's taking them a year to find a job and, when they do, the job salary is not on par [with their previous position]."

Food Banks' Changing Clientele

To meet the need of the growing clientele fundraisers and food drives are organized by food banks and pantries and the nonprofits rely on local growers who donate surplus produce. "More people are becoming bargain shoppers than before, so more people are shopping at Big Lots and etc. and they're becoming our competitors," says Helen McGovern, executive director of the Emergency Food Network, which created a campaign to raise a million pounds of food for its network of 67 food pantries and shelters. "We're getting less donated food but we're purchasing more staple foods like rice, cans and frozen produce."

As the demographics change, some food pantries are thinking up inventive ways to handle new clients who are hesitant about stepping into the organizations. The Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry employs an onsite social worker and expects to change its current system of divvying out pre-made bags of non-perishables and produce to clients.

The pantry will move into a new and larger space that will allow clients to pick the food items that their family needs for the month. The food pantry has concluded that allowing clients to choose their monthly or weekly staples is more empowering than having those choices made by workers. "We're going to allow our clients to shop because it's more dignified," says Abrams.

"There's a lot of pride with coming to a food pantry and a lot of families have a hard time coming here for the first time because then you have to admit to your family that you're not making ends meet," says Abrams, the daughter of a steel mill worker who was introduced to food pantries as a child after her father was laid off.

In a recent study by the Census Bureau, poverty levels were at a 16-year high as more than 1 in 7 Americans fell below the nation's poverty level. The number of people living in poverty is larger than the population of Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Rhode Island, Mississippi and Wyoming combined.

"The poverty numbers just confirm what we were learning tracking other factors," says Triada Stampas, director of government relations at Food Bank For New York City. Five years after the death of her husband, Rosalinde Block found herself at a food pantry on 86th Street in New York in desperate need of basic supplies to feed herself and her teenage son.

The 58-year-old Sarah Lawrence College graduate who made her life as a musician, illustrator, author and teacher of music and art, who spent a lifetime embodying a philanthropic spirit, has shifted to the other side as a recipient in need.

"It's kind of like J.K. Rowling," she gamely told ABCNews.com, referring to the famous author, who supported herself and her young daughter on welfare while writing the Harry Potter novels that would make her rich and famous.

Block is one of the changing faces of poverty. Typically, food banks and food pantries are non-profit organizations across the country that provide meals to millions of families and individuals in need. The food is oft-times supplied by food banks to food pantries, which then distribute to clients. And, as a result of the economic slowdown that has left more than 14 million people unemployed or underemployed in the United States, these organizations are facing one of their greatest periods of demand.

Despite reports that the country is coming out of its longest recession since the Great Depression, many people are struggling to afford the necessities.

At Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry in Pittsburgh, demand for supplemental food has increased 32 percent over the first quarter of 2010. The pantry that serves 860 clients has seen a return of old clients, that were presumably once doing better, and working families that have fallen on hard times due to reduced hours and job loss. This, despite that the National Bureau of Economic Research, a respected group of economists, says the U.S. recession that started in December 2007 officially ended in June 2009.

"People are finding it harder to stretch their budgets because of the rising costs of utilities and increased [health insurance] co-pays," says Becky Abrams, the director at Squirrel Hill.

Fish Foods Banks of Pierce County, Washington, saw client traffic to the seven food banks that serve around 30,000 people a month increase by 34 percent last year and another16 percent since the start of 2010. The fastest growing age group at Fish and St. Leo Food Connection tend to be 55 years old or older.

"To me that says that older workers who have lost their jobs are having a harder time trying to find a job," says Beth Elliott, executive director at the nonprofit food organization. "It's taking them a year to find a job and, when they do, the job salary is not on par [with their previous position]."

Food Banks' Changing Clientele

To meet the need of the growing clientele fundraisers and food drives are organized by food banks and pantries and the nonprofits rely on local growers who donate surplus produce. "More people are becoming bargain shoppers than before, so more people are shopping at Big Lots and etc. and they're becoming our competitors," says Helen McGovern, executive director of the Emergency Food Network, which created a campaign to raise a million pounds of food for its network of 67 food pantries and shelters. "We're getting less donated food but we're purchasing more staple foods like rice, cans and frozen produce."

As the demographics change, some food pantries are thinking up inventive ways to handle new clients who are hesitant about stepping into the organizations. The Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry employs an onsite social worker and expects to change its current system of divvying out pre-made bags of non-perishables and produce to clients.

The pantry will move into a new and larger space that will allow clients to pick the food items that their family needs for the month. The food pantry has concluded that allowing clients to choose their monthly or weekly staples is more empowering than having those choices made by workers. "We're going to allow our clients to shop because it's more dignified," says Abrams.

"There's a lot of pride with coming to a food pantry and a lot of families have a hard time coming here for the first time because then you have to admit to your family that you're not making ends meet," says Abrams, the daughter of a steel mill worker who was introduced to food pantries as a child after her father was laid off.

In a recent study by the Census Bureau, poverty levels were at a 16-year high as more than 1 in 7 Americans fell below the nation's poverty level. The number of people living in poverty is larger than the population of Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Rhode Island, Mississippi and Wyoming combined.

"The poverty numbers just confirm what we were learning tracking other factors," says Triada Stampas, director of government relations at Food Bank For New York City. The non-profit organization that works with approximately 1,000 pantries and soup kitchen says 91% have seen an increase and a roughly equal amount have seen a rise in first time clients.

Demand has increased so rapidly that almost half of the food pantries and soup kitchens in the area have been forced to turn people away due to lack of food. The crisis of the food network comes at time when 40 percent of New Yorkers have problems affording food. "Even people who are working are experiencing difficulty affording food at close to the same rate as the unemployed," Stampas said. "It speaks to the fact that many people that are working are not working the kind of hours they need to feed their families, they're not earning wages to afford food, and employment is not a guarantee against hunger."

Wish Upon a Hero

The new face can come cloaked in anonymity. In some cases, seeking help on anonymous message boards or sharing their story on Youtube hidden behind blurred lines.

These financial difficulties are familiar to a Lexington, North Carolina, resident, whose husband was laid off in May, leaving the family of five in a crunch when it came to bare necessities. The mother of three who adopted children posted an anonymous note on "Wish Upon a Hero" asking not for money or clothes but food.

"We are in need of some food. We do get adoption assistance but isn't enough to buy food and it barely covers our food. I'm not asking for money really, a gift card for any food store would be great. Walmart, Food Lion or anything anyone can do to help would be great."

"I have a strong belief in God," says Block. "I don't believe God is up there with a spread sheet saying 'you're all tapped out.' I don't know where I would be without this."

Demand has increased so rapidly that almost half of the food pantries and soup kitchens in the area have been forced to turn people away due to lack of food. The crisis of the food network comes at time when 40 percent of New Yorkers have problems affording food. "Even people who are working are experiencing difficulty affording food at close to the same rate as the unemployed," Stampas said. "It speaks to the fact that many people that are working are not working the kind of hours they need to feed their families, they're not earning wages to afford food, and employment is not a guarantee against hunger."

Wish Upon a Hero

The new face can come cloaked in anonymity. In some cases, seeking help on anonymous message boards or sharing their story on Youtube hidden behind blurred lines.

These financial difficulties are familiar to a Lexington, North Carolina, resident, whose husband was laid off in May, leaving the family of five in a crunch when it came to bare necessities. The mother of three who adopted children posted an anonymous note on "Wish Upon a Hero" asking not for money or clothes but food.

"We are in need of some food. We do get adoption assistance but isn't enough to buy food and it barely covers our food. I'm not asking for money really, a gift card for any food store would be great. Walmart, Food Lion or anything anyone can do to help would be great."

"I have a strong belief in God," says Block. "I don't believe God is up there with a spread sheet saying 'you're all tapped out.' I don't know where I would be without this."

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