Unemployed or underemployed: College educated families are becoming the new poor

Come Christmas dinner, Rolanda McCarty, a 36-year-old single mother, usually goes all out.

Her table last year featured a rosemary-and-oil rubbed turkey and a sweet ham. She prepared fresh collard greens according to her grandmother’s recipe. The dessert — a rich butter pound cake — was made from scratch.

But after being laid off from her technical recruiting job in January because of the struggling economy, there will be no fancy holiday feast, no family members pouring into her downsized one-bedroom apartment. She will rely on what she has: canned vegetables and microwavable meals from her community food bank.

“It was a little bit embarrassing,” said McCarty of accessing the food pantry at the Lawrenceville Cooperative Ministry for the first time last month. “But you know, I have to do what I have to do to survive.”

It is perhaps around the holidays, a period of celebration often centered on food, when there is no clearer reminder for many once middle-class families of what life used to taste like. McCarty, who is college educated and served in the Air Force for four years, describes herself as “an independent person,” who earned $38,000 a year before the economy took a turn.

But McCarty, along with millions of others, represents a growing group of middle- and working-class individuals who are “food insecure,” which means they have difficulty feeding one or more of their household members at some point last year because of a lack of money.

More than 50 million Americans were living in a food insecure home at some point in 2009, including 17 million children, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That amounts to one out of six Americans, the highest the government has reported in the last 15 years.

In contrast, before the recession in 2006, 36 million people lived in a food insecure household.

With unemployment near 10% and foreclosures ongoing, more Americans are relying on food banks, institutions that are usually regarded as a last resort, food security experts said. Feeding America, an organization of more than 200 U.S. food banks, fed 37 million Americans in 2009, nearly a 50% jump from 2006.

These families face a never-ending treadmill of tough decisions. Do they use their income — if they have one — to pay their mortgage or feed themselves? Do they pay for a hospital visit or put dinner on the table?

McCarty said she exhausted the ways to save money before seeking free food. She withdrew her 4-year-old daughter from day care. She cooks on alternate days to cut down on her gas bill. Her sister, who is employed, will buy her daughter’s Christmas gifts.

“Six year ago, when I started working here, I saw the cliche. There were people entrenched in poverty,” said Ross Fraser, spokesman for the nonprofit Feeding America. “Well, that’s changing. You have more and more people who have college degrees, who have become unemployed or underemployed.”

The new hungry: Educated and middle class

In Los Angeles, a teacher who lost an after-school coaching job because of school budget cuts found the pay reduction was too much. He turned to a food pantry to support his children, Fraser said.

A working professional in New York, who lost his job earlier this year, believed his eight months of emergency funds would be sufficient until he found a job. When his funds dwindled faster than expected, he sought handouts at a food bank, a food bank worker said.

Feeding America said 36 percent of the people who get food from its soup kitchens and pantries have at least one employed person in their household. While rural and urban areas continue to require the most assistance, several food bank workers say the need in suburban areas has risen more quickly.

“The recession may technically be over according to the economists, but the people who run our food pantry soup kitchens or shelters, they aren’t seeing it or feeling it,” said Stacy Wong, a spokeswoman at The Greater Boston Food Bank. Wong said the agency has served 545,200 people in 2010. In 2006, it served 417,950 people.

Food bank workers point out those who are are unemployed must worry about whether their benefits will expire. And, the winter school holidays add to the woes of families in financial despair. Many parents will need to find alternative ways to provide breakfasts and lunches.

Food banks said they are quickly stocking their shelves for the many newcomers they expect.

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0 Comments

  • Mz. Witness Protection

    Reply Reply December 13, 2010

    i feel this…i am right there with them but my pride and my kids allergies won’t let me visit food pantries just yet.. i just try to hustle a lil bit harder and a lil bit wiser…change has to come

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