Monday, October 10, 2011

Like Food? Occupy Wall Street!

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 3: A participant in the...Image by Getty Images via @daylife
The Occupy Wall Street Journal

“Hunger is the handmaid of genius”
- Mark Twain (1835-1910)
            To those of you who regularly follow my Twitter or Facebook feeds, you have probably noticed that I have been sending out messages regarding Occupy Wall Street. Some of you may be wondering why I would want to get involved in the messy politics of anti-anything and everything protests run by a bunch of college kids, street activists and those who CNBC has called “aligned with Lenin.” After all, this is a food blog, not some anti-capitalist conspiracy blog – just let them eat non-GMO vegan twigs and berries and be done with it.
            But contrary to what you may be thinking, Occupy Wall Street has EVERYTHING to do with food – in particular, food and the lack of it. With no fanfare, last month the US Census Bureau announced new poverty numbers: 1 in 6 are officially designated as in “poverty,”[1] about 42.6 million persons, the highest number since 1993. The number of those on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“food stamps”) is slightly higher, at 45.3 million[2] or about 1 in 7.
            But a closer look at the numbers finds a starker picture. According to the US Census, those with incomes ranging from $25,000 to $75,000 represent the middle of the income range, with the US median household income at $49,445.[3] But is a living income? Think about the precipitous rise in the cost of fuel, food, utilities and health and childcare, many households cannot survive. Factor in the recession, unemployment (at 9.1 percent currently), education, and food. Of those, housing, health insurance, child care/education and car payments are fixed. How much can be left? Can households survive?
            The Living Wage Calculator [4]attempts to answer that question. Using models developed at the Economic Policy Institute, the Living Wage Calculator attempts to show the minimum wage needed to live in any county in the US. For example, in Cook County, Illinois, where Chicago lies, a family of four would need $61,595 to live at a minimum level.[5] For a single wage-earner home, that would require at least a minimum wage of $29.61. NYC’ers (Brooklyn and Manhattan) minimum living wage is $30.30. But this is for urban areas. If we were to look at Otoe County, Nebraska (lies in the heart of corn country, on the border with Iowa), the minimum living wage is relatively smaller at $23.35.
            In all these cases, the minimum wage FAILS to pay a living wage for families with one wage earner. Obviously, many families have 2 possible wage earners, but due to lack of jobs, available and/or affordable childcare, as well as other conditions, many families can’t even max out the economic possibility of 2 full-time wage earners. And even with 2 incomes, middle-class families (never mind the ones in poverty!) are still in trouble. According to Elizabeth Warren[6], bankruptcy expert and Harvard Law School professor, it is the reliance on 2 wage earners that places many middle-class persons in financial peril. Middle-class families by depending upon a second wage to make ends meet are in serious financial jeopardy if one wage earner is out. If there is an emergency, such as chronic illness, death, or divorce, a new vehicle, out goes the financial stability and security.
            Although the numbers bear out the “big picture” of the recession, the reality can be felt in every street corner of America. Working families need to go to food banks. Families move in with other family members to save on housing costs. Kids move back in to their parents because they can’t find a job. A record number of homeless families are hitting community shelters. People in their 50s are cashing out their 401k’s because they can’t find work. Choosing between food and health care, many opt out of health insurance because the marginal costs are not worth the extra money in the bank. Even in wealthy Long Island, welfare rolls have exploded by 67 percent from 2007.[7] And most of these people are not considered in “poverty” by the US government.
            And there are other signs. Gardening has skyrocketed – not because people have more leisure time – because they need a reliable source of food. Wal-Mart has introduced layaway because customers cannot afford to pay the full amount for goods. Food corporations from Frito-Lay to Clorox have made smaller packages because at the end of the month people can’t afford the ordinary sized packages or for dollar stores.
            I could go on about how the financial speculation and government policies (specifically ethanol subsidies) are contributing to food insecurity.[8][9] I could also go on about the gross income inequality in the US. And I definitely could go on how both parties are so busy cutting each other’s throats that the vital social services and job creation efforts needed are just election footnotes.
            But this is the reason why Occupy Wall Street exists. 100 percent of us eat, but 99 percent of us worry how we pay for it. Occupy Wall Street is not about toppling capitalism or agitprop.  It is about the ordinary frustrations of ordinary people just trying to make ends meet. These are values we all agree upon – a 100 percent.

[1] Poverty is calculated by the US Census Bureau using an income threshold and the size of the household. For an individual that number would be $10,890 and for a 4-person family, the poverty threshold is $22, 350 (slightly higher in Alaska and Hawaii).
[2] In order to qualify for food stamps, a person’s individual income cannot exceed $14,088 a year, or $1,174 a month (130 percent of the poverty level).
[3] US Census Bureau 2011. New York Times reported today regarding the falling level of median incomes, despite the recession’s end:
[5] Notice this is for the MINIMUM living standard. Middle class standards such high quality education and childcare as well as “safe” neighborhoods, are NOT included in this calculation. Furthermore, the cost of higher education, college, that bastion of the middle-class is only getting steeper. According to Forbes, 10 years ago, a 4-year public education cost 18% of middle-class income. Now that number is 25%. And college students are shouldering the extra burden: more than two-thirds of college graduates have student debt.
[6] Elizabeth Warren is also in the running for Scott Brown’s senate seat in Massachusetts.
[8] A recent study by Yaneer Bar-Yam and the New England Complex Systems Institute examined the recent volatility of world food prices (click here for the link). Their conclusion was this: Financial speculation and biofuel policy are fueling the dramatic rise in food commodities. But it’s not just the price rise that is problematic. The team’s research also pointed to the rapidity of those rises that also causes social instability.
[9] UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization just released a report today saying prices for key food commodities are to remain high and volatile for the foreseeable future. This will only increase food insecurity across the world – not just the US.
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