Politics of Poverty

Why are hard-working Americans turning to food banks?

Posted by
(L to R) Andrew Yarrow of Oxfam, Phyllis Hepp of Kalamozoo Loaves & Fishes, and Jeffrey Buchanan of Oxfam meet with Congressman Fred Upton (R-MI) in his DC offices in February.

The wages of a too many full-time employees in the US don’t cover families’ basic needs.

Phyllis Hepp, MSW, LMSW is the Director of Organizational Development at Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes.*

At Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes, we do great work providing food to the hungry in our community, but really we want to find a way to end that hunger altogether.

To do that is simple: Make sure people earn enough money to put food on the table. We can do this by increasing the federal minimum wage.

Every day, our food pantries get calls from people who have jobs and work hard and long, but come home at night to find empty shelves and hungry kids. No matter how many hours they work, their wages are just not enough.

This isn’t right. It isn’t fair. And it simply doesn’t make sense.

So in early February, I left my office in Michigan and traveled to Washington, DC to visit my members of Congress and tell them just that: Raise the federal minimum wage. We know that millions of workers and their families would benefit.

I joined Oxfam America and other advocates in several visits on Capitol Hill. We were asking them simple questions: Why is the federal minimum wage stuck at a poverty level? Why won’t Congress take steps to raise the wage so that millions of hard-working Americans can feed their families and find a way out of poverty?

Take the examples of two clients whom I met recently in the Kalamazoo area:

  • Sarah is working two jobs and caring for an elderly father.  She makes just over the SNAP (food stamps) eligibility level, which means she doesn’t qualify for food stamps.  But she can’t pay both the house payment and the food bill, so turns to our food pantry.
  • Tiffany, 38 years old, lost a good-paying job due to downsizing.  While she eventually secured another job, it pays wages so low that that she and her daughter had to move back in with her parents. The family needs food assistance to make sure everyone has enough to sustain them all.

I believe that the wages of a full-time employee should cover the basic needs of a family, and this means that the federal minimum wage needs to be higher than $7.25 an hour. Although Michigan’s minimum wage is higher than the federal minimum, it’s still only $8.15 per hour –hardly enough for a worker to support a family. A full quarter of the children in my Congressional district, MI-6, live in households supported by low-wage workers (earning under $11.50 an hour).

On Capitol Hill, I spoke with Congressman Fred Upton and the legislative aides for Michigan Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters about how low wages impact the number of people who need emergency food assistance in Kalamazoo County.  Sixteen percent of working households in MI-6 receive food stamps, but there’s a lot more who don’t qualify for SNAP, and still don’t earn enough money to sustain their households.  Even with the Michigan state plan for minimum wage increases over the next few years (to $9.20 by 2017), low-wage workers won’t be able to sustain their households without government and emergency assistance.

I’m honored to work with staff and volunteers who want to make sure that no one, of any age in any corner of our community, is suffering from hunger. Our organization services a lot of folks with food in several ways: a grocery pantry, a weekend program for kids (72% of children in Kalamazoo Public Schools qualify for free and reduced-price lunch), meals for vulnerable populations, and more.

But as the government safety net is eroded, Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes can’t meet the current level of need, much less the projected increases of working families’ needs.  We need to raise the federal minimum wage because people who are willing to work hard should be able to raise a healthy family.

*Advocacy continues to be a critical component in Kalamazoo Loves & Fishes’ fight to end local hunger. While direct service and food distribution programs provide essential immediate help to hungry people, its advocacy programs aim to influence public policy and resource allocation within political, economic and social systems and institutions.

Oxfam.org Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+