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News on hunger, deprivation set to come during ‘Poverty Week’

Perhaps more than any other single time during the year, early September is when America takes stock of its poorest citizens.

Lenora Faison, 68, of West Philadelphia, fell from the middle class into deep poverty because of various setbacks, including bad health. The coming week will bring an avalanche of data about poverty here and throughout the United States.
Lenora Faison, 68, of West Philadelphia, fell from the middle class into deep poverty because of various setbacks, including bad health. The coming week will bring an avalanche of data about poverty here and throughout the United States.Read moreValentia Cammile

Through the hard times that have impoverished and nearly killed her, Lenora Faison, 68, has been buoyed by a pithy bromide she picked up somewhere in her star-crossed life:

"You make a way out of no way."

A former manager at a local oil company, Faison lost her job in 1994 because of a series of devastating health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. Once comfortably middle class, the West Philadelphia widow now lives with four grandchildren on disability payments and food stamps totaling around $12,000 a year, which casts the family into deep poverty — less than half the federal poverty level.

Faison credits the food pantry in Bala Cynwyd run by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia for keeping her and her family alive: "I thank the Lord for them."

Faison's plight and the dire circumstances of more than 400,000 other Philadelphians who live in poverty are being illuminated during the first two weeks of September. Perhaps more than any other single time of the year, this is when America takes stock of its least advantaged citizens.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report on hunger released Wednesday showed that nationwide, the rate of food insecurity — the condition of not having access to enough food for a healthy life — decreased from 12.3 percent in 2016 to 11.8 percent in 2017. At the same time, childhood food insecurity didn't change much, stuck at around 8 percent.

In the coming days — unofficially dubbed "Poverty Week" by anti-hunger advocates — the U.S. Census Bureau will release two vital reports about poverty in 2017 that are used by businesses and local, state, and federal officials to understand poverty, set their agendas for fighting it, and create funding levels for the entire year.

The Income and Poverty report will tell us the U.S. median income, as well as the federal poverty level.

>> READ MORE: Philadelphia remains poorest big city

Last year's report showed that U.S. median household income rose from $57,230 to $59,039 between 2015 and 2016. But Philadelphia's income level remained about the same — $41,449 — during that same period.

The Census Bureau will also release a copious report known as the American Community Survey, which reveals the poverty levels of cities and counties, among other data.

Last year's survey showed that Philadelphia's poverty rate remained stagnant in 2016 at 26 percent, even as poverty declined throughout America to around 12.7 percent. The city retained its unenviable designation as the poorest of the 10 most populous U.S. cities.

Also this week, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate will continue working on the Farm Bill, which funds food stamps, now know as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The deadline for a new bill is Sept. 30.

For advocates of people living in poverty, early September is a time to analyze who's been hurt and what's being done to help them.

While the USDA showed that food insecurity dipped in 2017, it's still 11 percent higher than in 2007, before the recession, noted Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, a nationwide advocacy group headquartered in New York.

"We must not accept mass deprivation in the wealthiest nation in world history as any sort of  'new normal,'" Berg said. Adding that America is far hungrier than before the recession, he said this "proves this country still suffers from major structural flaws, including low wages and a shredded government safety net."

Outraged by the USDA's unchanging numbers on childhood hunger, Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University's School of Public Health, said that "families are not getting any help from policy makers and America's biggest employers in protecting kids from hunger."

Because hunger affects mental and physical development, "it's akin to a brain injury" in a child, Chilton added.

In summer's waning days, Philabundance, the largest hunger-relief organization in the region, will gear up to feed those in need as part of what its Chicago-based parent agency, Feeding America, calls "Hunger Action Month."

Donors are helping Philabundance raise money for extra meals; restaurants will donate proceeds to the agency; and on Thursday, Philabundance will conduct a so-called "hunger simulation" workshop that will show donors what it's like to apply for SNAP benefits.

Very much on advocates' minds are the legislative machinations now on display in Washington that will affect SNAP levels.

"In Philadelphia, one in five people still goes to bed each night not knowing where their next meal will come from, or if they'll have one at all," said Glenn Bergman, executive director of Philabundance.

He added that the House version of the Farm Bill, which contains provisions to limit SNAP benefits, would be disastrous if it passes.

"Philabundance and fellow food banks will not be able to make up for the food shortfall," he said, "and it will be harmful to our most vulnerable populations — especially children and the elderly."

That's likely to be the consequence for Lenora Faison and her grandchildren, for whom any cut in food stamps would be devastating.

"They say the economy is good, but these are hard times," she said. "People on my street are begging for food.

"None of my neighbors have much."