Blog Post: In the New Year, A Closer Look At The Working Poor

Income inequality in Northern Virginia, hard times, and high local costs add up to more and more families needing food assistance.

It is easy to see why there are so many families in need in Northern Virginia, both within and beyond the definition of “the working poor."

The national poverty line for the average family (two adults and two children) is set at $22,350.  To qualify for the monthly USDA food supplements that Food for Others distributes, families need to be below 185 percent of that line.  

If both parents are working at minimum-wage ($7.25) jobs for 40 hours a week, what this family earns ($30,160) still falls well below the national line for food supplements ($41,625). And given the cost of living in Northern Virginia, the real line is even more out of reach to many.

Beyond the working poor are those families who earn too much to receive USDA food supplements but whose income, for Northern Virginia, falls far short of the real costs of living. They may not fit the definition of “working poor”, but these families also need assistance from Food for Others and other social safety nets. And for families who have lost their jobs, or seen their hours cut back, or been derailed by medical bills – we are here for them too. Indeed, we now we see many families who not long ago were doing quite well.

Over these last three years, we have seen a dramatic spike in the need for emergency food – between January 2009 and November 2011, the number of families referred to us for emergency food by social-service agencies
and churches has risen 142 percent. While poor working families have been our
principal clients for a long time, in these painful economic times, “the
poverty line” and “the minimum wage” seem like standards from long ago.

It is not only the number of new families coming to us, but their self-reported income that is unprecedented. Not only do many families, both old and new, report there is now no income at all, but they report extraordinary measures to get through the winter: two or more families now in the same house or apartment or basement; older parents moving in with their adult children; adult children moving in with their older parents; scrimping on heat; scrimping on gas; few with healthcare of any kind.

In response, Food for Others has sought to expand its giving by doubling the annual number of emergency-food packages for families, by distributing food in bulk to special groups like shelters and parish pantries that channel food to needy families, and by targeting our daily food distributions in Northern Virginia neighborhoods to those areas with greatest need. We have also begun a special delivery to one particularly needy community, and are in the first stages of our Power Pack Program that will give weekend food to school children who face Saturdays and Sundays without regular meals.

The good news is that Food for Others can serve all the families that come to us, because our donors have kept pace so far with this growing demand. In addition, we take the time to explain to each new family how to get referrals for extra food when needed, and where Food for Others’ 15 neighborhood distribution sites – where food is available Monday through Friday no questions asked – are located. Because hunger is so immediate and because Food for Others is the largest distributor of free food directly to people in need in Northern Virginia, many people come to us first. As a result, we have become for many of these families the key source of information about other, broader assistance programs (employment, healthcare, childcare, housing, and clothing) offered by Fairfax County social services, or those in Arlington, Alexandria, or Prince William as appropriate.

Food for Others finds itself in the eye of this still-growing storm, offering our families essential food as always and, increasingly, essential information about other resources to see them through this worst of our generation’s hard times.

For information about donating to or volunteering for Food for Others, call Nikki Clifford at 703-207-9173, or you may go to www.foodforothers.org.

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