In 2008 the nation suffered its largest one-year decline in median income since 1967, and the largest one-year increase in poverty since 1991, a US Census report announced last week.
The Economic Policy Institute called these statistics just the tip of the iceberg–since the economy continues to hemorrhage jobs and the report takes into account less than one-quarter of the total rise in unemployment through August 2009.
The report from the Census Bureau didn’t reveal anything anti-hunger advocates don’t already know. Families who never struggled with hunger now need help for the first time, and families who rarely used food shelves in the past are visiting on a monthly basis, just to get by.
“In suburbs which have always been fairly wealthy in Minnesota, we see sometimes 100, 104 percent increases in the number of people visiting food shelves,” said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota. “People who have never visited before, who find themselves unemployed, who have run through their unemployment insurance, or any kind of savings account they have…. People just run through all their options.”
That’s why Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison’s legislation to increase eligibility for free school lunches is so timely. It will likely be introduced next week, and Senator Al Franken of Minnesota will sponsor a companion bill in the Senate.
Ellison’s bill would allow children in families earning up to 185 percent of the poverty line–$40,793 for a family of four–access to free school lunches. The current cutoff is 130 percent of the poverty line, with some students from families earning more eligible for reduced-price meals that they often can’t afford. In Minnesota, the bill would allow an additional 54,000 low-income children to receive free lunches.
A second bill sponsored by Ellison would make it illegal for school districts to take steps to punish or stigmatize kids when their families aren’t current on their meal payments. It would prohibit practices like using collection agencies to go after the families, or giving a student only a cheese sandwich, or stopping someone from graduating.